Penguin Books ($17)
by Tom Devaney
John Yau's recent Borrowed Love Poems is a dazzling exploration of deft and unforgiving openness. The poems engage the reader with a wide and wild array of characters, disembodied and otherwise, with an imaginative and capacious use of the lyric "I." It is a collection fed on a steady diet of movies, modernism, and all manner of mercurial identity, swift perception, and modes and inventive odes of riddling otherhood.
In this impressive 130-page collection, Yau offers new poems and continues series such as his "Genghis Chan: Private Eye" in addition to his long "Vowel Sonatas," and various poems to and about painters, poets, musicians, and movie stars, to name a very few.
As in Dante's Divine Comedy, we meet all manner of unrepentant madmen and women here, all manner of peacemakers and other folks just blown to pieces. In the poem "After My Chronology by Peter Lorre," Yau writes: "What is chronology, but detachable hands / sifting for condensation collectivized in an earlier era?"
Many poems, such as the morphed self-portraiture of "I Was a Poet in the House of Frankenstein," are a collection of disembodied characters, which absorb everything in their theater of uninterrupted and rollicking sway. The tone of the poem is set from the first line and continues on:
I order the wholesale massacre of the white settlers.
I live in Old Baghdad and make tents.
I become a maharajah and, once again,
I am a French Canadian trapper.
A Mexican halfbreed, a mate
on a rum smuggling ship,
an evil governor:
I am each of them and more.
The capacious poem continues on with its hard-boiled, surreal and biting inventiveness for eight more pages.
One of the things that makes this book so enjoyable is that Yau has at his disposal an abundance of stylistic devices, which he uses to show poetry's roomy nature and ability to absorb all other media. From movies, music, painting, and "storied fibs piled high," Yau's animated vernacular translates the familiar all around us from "that cold / hard glue some zealots / still call the world."
At their best, Yau's terrific, hilarious and often damning poems have an impressive range—both emotional, impersonal and otherwise. Spilling over with formal mastery, Borrowed Love Poems is an utterly pleasurable collection.
Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2002 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2002