Graywolf Press, 2011. 120 pages. $15.
The first and last words of Jeffrey Yang’s new book, Vanishing-Line, are “place”: the first poem is called “Place” and the book closes with a quotation from Robert Duncan on place. In each place he presents, Yang positions “facts.” Establishing the relationship between these individual facts and the stage of history becomes the task of the writer and then the reader.
Vanishing-Line encompasses a geographic and historical scale, differing from the microscopic vision in his previous book, Aquarium. In Aquarium the narrator’s vision has a fairly steady focal range and a consistent format, presenting sequentially an alphabetized list of creatures from “Abalone” to “Zooxanthellae.” These creatures are all about the same distance away, and you get about the same amount of time to watch each one: then, on to the next specimen. Yang, as ecological tour guide, assesses and contextualizes the images at the human scale, as here in “Anemone”: “Anemones are warriors, colonizing / rock and reef in ranks. The history / of the world is told thru the eye / of the colonizer, who takes pleasure in / sticking his fingers into an anemone’s / mouth until it starves.”
By contrast, poems in Vanishing-Line often begin with a distant slow pan like the open vistas of There Will Be Blood or a John Ford film: Yang shows you existence through a wide-angle lens, the human only one feature along the ever-receding horizon lines of place. As he puts it in a stanza-closing line, he portrays “not a window but a field.” After establishing panoramas, in many poems Yang then chooses to zoom in on a detail. For example, in “Throne,” within one sentence he changes the focal distance from a nail in a canoe to the scope of a colonizing nation: “Canoes without nails, scoops for oars // They walked // as Portugal lost its monopoly . . . ”
This is the dramatic action of the book: the rapid shift of scale from the epic to the lyric, from the landscape to the window of the eye. The “I” enters late into Yang’s poems if it enters at all; only on the fifth page of a five page poem, “An Archaeology,” does the speaker circumscribe his own silhouette on the “line of stone benches” where “M. and I sit.” Until that moment, the vision of the poem has scanned the scale of archaeology itself, noting a man’s gesture in relation to the strata of geology, the imprints of humans over civilization-long time periods, but has said nothing of the poet’s own presence in the scene. Likewise in “Lyric Suite,” in what seems to be third person, he narrates the life of a woman in occupied China for several pages until he finally admits her connection to himself: “He had a lover, but she never left him / nor he her // fury, I too young to see before his death.” Later, the relationship becomes more intimate and clear; he explains that the woman cared for him when he was a child. This slow revelation of the lyric stance adds dramatic tension to the poem and entreats you to reassess all that has passed in the preceding lines. Yang demonstrates his deftness by compelling the reader to such rereading and reenvisioning.
Yang sets facts beside each other on the shelf of the line, as if he were a curator in a historical museum. Where other poets might strive to paint in images, this poet collects and catalogues. History has solidified events, and he now excavates that “History rock turned word-/illusion, memory the chisel.” After excavation, these facts—about his Chinese ancestor and her context or about Native Americans on this continent’s east coast—depict an epic reenactment or diorama. Words whose meanings have been lost—such as “Yennecott,” the Native American name for a Long Island town—become mute artifacts in the diorama. The dust that accumulates on them, the hour at which you enter the little room, the sound of his voice in the background—all these create a set of conditions under which you experience the fact-artifacts in the poem. At first you see only few, loosely connected images, as if scanning paintings in a gallery: “scarab seal // foundation deposits / undeciphered till the 1850s”; and then “library table found underground: // dove sent forth returned”; then, “prisoners and deportees / confers and grapevines.” Soon, you find the images supplemented with quotations, as if you’d paused to read the captions on a museum displays: “in Ninevah, Austen Henry Layard, 1840: ‘The site was covered with grass and flowers, and the enclosure formed by the long line of mounds which marked the ancient walls of the city’” and so on in prose until the next citation: “across the river // E.L. Mitford, 1840, : ‘Mostul is an ill-constructed mud-built town . . . ’” and so on.
Facts are Yang’s focus and the medium, as they so self-consciously were for the Objectivists and Imagists. The echoes and interplays between Yang’s work and George Oppen’s Of Being Numerous are, well, numerous. Yang mentions Oppen and Reznikoff in poems here and in Aquarium and in this book’s bibliographic note, assuring me that I do not imagine the influence. Oppen, like Yang, tends to speak in the third-person omniscient, only allowing an “I” to appear intimately integrated into the large-scale landscape. Here are some lines that could have come straight from Oppen: “ . . . element of the city this belongingness / crowded together public / space”; or, “Of the part served // in a community of resistance // That the party she served / purged . . . ”
I had to read patiently the excerpted text and research many allusions in order to follow the metaphorical “fine print” in his poetic museum of facts. As with a text by Joyce or Pound, it is possible to read this book without external reference materials, but you might find your experience enriched by looking up the details (unless you happen to have a memory as capacious as those two authors). When I closed the book, I experienced the dissonance of stepping from a dimly lit interiority of recreated history to the garish outdoors of the present. I had taken a tour of the lands of the Old Testament and rural China through images and citations. Like a visitor leaving a historical museum, I felt the burden of applying this experience to the present. And that burden lay with me. I had some work left to do as a reader; Yang did not tidy up and finalize reflection for me.
That was an exciting feeling. There are some books that daunt you with erudition or smile smugly with completion and perfection. And there are some books make you want to write. You say, “Ah, and that is possible with poetry. How thrilling! Perhaps I should try it.” These are the best books.