Jeffrey Yang’s Aquarium (Poetry)

5148905I don’t read that much poetry. So one time, I went in a used books store and bought all the cheap poetry books I found (worth only P10 or below) just to get a sense of what much of contemporary poetry in the west is like.

Of course, until then, much of the poetry I read are by writers with a clear commitment for social change and who have fashioned their craft to this cause. Some of the poets I’ve been (re)reading late this year include Gelacio Guillermo, Ho Chi Minh, Pablo Neruda, Mayamor, Joi Barrios, Varavara Rao, and presently Axel Pinpin.

Obviously, I don’t eat that shit about art for art’s sake. So poetry that have less to say about the exploitation and oppression of workers and peasants, prison life, women’s liberation, revolutionary change, etc. is new territory to me.

Of the almost a dozen titles I hauled as a sort of experiment, one of the poetry books that I found somehow interesting is An Aquarium by Jeffrey Young, an editor at New Directions Publishing. What enamored me is the book’s concept as a totality. The book, which is called An Aquarium, poems themed around a variety of aquatic life arranged alphabetically from Abalone to Zooxanthellae.

More than plain homages to marine creatures, the oceanic theme is in fact simply a vehicle for the poet to comment on a diverse set of subjects from history, philosophy, war machines, and environmental destruction.

Post-structuralist Banality

Given the diverseness of the selections, I didn’t find it hard to find some objectionable poems that merely rehash a postmodern ethos that has become today’s neoliberal common sense. This includes a marrying of poststructuralist dogma with older elitist concerns to simulate a new formalism.

The poem “Foraminifera” for instance concludes with the lines: “Nannaya’s grammar: Poetry / is the ultimate learning.” What is this but the old art for art’s sake doctrine as epitomized by Yang’s relish in minute description of the Foraminifera’s shell form.

The poem “Google” directly disseminates to the reader the subjectivist idea forwarded by Sassure’s followers that language as an arbitrary system cannot reflect reality. Identities are constructed through discourses formed on the basis of difference: “Information / is originally nothing but difference.”

The same cultural turn from an investigation of material reality to a wallowing in textual and discursive regimes is the wellspring of the notions forwarded by the poem “Jian Kui” which proposes finding one’s own identity “without striving to identify.” Ambivalence is valorized. Instead of seeking solidarity across oppressed classes and sectors against the ruling exploiter class, a floating state of leisured indifference and uncertainty is championed.

Some of the poems are meanwhile banal. The poem “Dinoflagellate,” for instance, starts well enough with a narration of the sea creature’s effects but ends with some adage about striving for equililbrium.

Another poem, “Mola Mola,” meanwhile drowns the reader with a long list of the names that the fish is identified in different languages and ends with the suggestion that this is somehow like a medieval amillary sphere.

I can say the same for the poems in the latter part of the collection. Poems like “Zhi-Fish,” “Yingshao,” or “X-Ray Fish,” to cite some, pretends to relay a moral story that are ultimately empty of any real wisdom. For instance: “If you think / you’re insane, eat one quick / Zhi-fish restore your psyche.” Of course, the questioning of the idea of wisdom as such may be the real point of the poems – in accordance with the dominant culture that have supposedly become incredulous to grand narratives.

Playful and Politically-Charged

But the poems that do escape the flaws of post-structuralist pretentiousness and banality described earlier are the ones I find palatable. These poems use the theme of aquatic life to describe social reality while maintaining an ironic stance and playfulness.

“Zooxanthelae,” the last poem and the longest is for me one of Yang’s best in the collection. It basically recounts, with the help of lengthy quotations from what seems to be news and scientific reports, the destruction caused by US nuclear testing in the Pacific. It is amidst the horrific impunity with which might is imposed upon human communities and the environment that scientists involved in these grotesque weapons experiments discover a sustainable ecosystem of algae called the zooxanthelae – an emphatic contrast to US imperialist rapaciousness. In spite of the seemingly intimidating length and a form that begins with the standard poetic lines that gradually grow from concise to long and eventually spills over into prose, you won’t need any dictionary to understand the poem unlike most of the others in the collection.

Another favorite poem is “U.S.” which compares the imperialist superpower to various kinds of fishes:

The U.S. is a small fish
with a false head; or a big fish
with false scales; or a dream
of the perfect that turns into nightmare;
[…]
or a fish that acts like it’s the only existing fish;
or a Japanese fish; or an Israeli fish;
or a fish that pollutes the whole sea;
or a fish that consumes the whole sea;

I also like the poem “Shark” where the metaphor of the shark stands in for the capitalist sales agent hawking his commodities door to door:

From the Gulf of Mexico up
the Mississippi beyond where the people
of Poverty Point preceded, xoc swim.
Every doorway tells a story.

The poem “Anemone” tells us how “Anemones are warriors, colonizing / rock and reef in ranks.” Yet they are ironically in turn violently colonized by men.

The poem “Riftia” is a rumination on how man destroys the tranquility of nature through the figure of the giant tube worm Riftia as entrypoint: “Millennia after millennia Riftia / lived in peace. Then / 1977, a year after Mao’s death… scientists descended the ocean’s / depths and discovered.”

In the poem “Parrotfish” the colors of the said fish becomes the starting point for a rumination on the political or apolitical character of art: “Picasso thought abstraction a cul-de- / sac. The CIA loved Abstract / Expressionism… / Langer: “All genuine art / is abstract.” The poem ends by asking what the opinion of the parrotfish is. Come to think of it, is it not that it is only the aestheticists who impute a purely aesthetic function to the color of the fish when it is in fact used for defense and camouflage and is hence embedded in spatial politics under the sea.

In the poem “Clownfish” we are told not to judge something by its name. A clownfish may have a funny name yet it possesses something men don’t have: “(hermpahroditism – for them reproductive; / for man but a dream.)”

The poem “Orca” calls our attention to the irony of the “god of the ocean” now suffering under human captivity. They never do humans harm “unless forced to do chlorinated circus / tricks, in which case they die young.”

All in all, An Aquarium is a mixed bag where poems that are plainly pointless and banal, senseless poems that are infected by a post-structuralist-inspired incomprehensibility, and poems that are memorably playful, politically-charged and interesting inhabit the same fascinating space.

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