by John Yau
Letter Machine Editions
The latest offering from Letter Machine Editions — an exciting new press run by Noah Eli Gordon and Joshua Marie Wilkinson — is a volume by John Yau that packs a playful and intellectual wallop far, far beyond its slim, chapbook length.
The painting by Squeak Carnwath on the cover reads, “Art, like science and philosophy presents essential versions of reality,” and such a statement nicely serves as the volume’s unofficial epigraph; inside the book proper, Yau presents us with 110 oblique statements and rhetorical questions (5 per page) that, for all their apparent zaniness, offer a similar aphoristic wisdom, something that I might venture to call poetic truth.
On a second glance, the front cover seems to suggest one continuous sentence: “John Yau exhibits [that] Art, like science and philosophy presents essential versions of reality.” Such a reading, of course, entails a crossing of categories, as we form the imaginary phrase by moving from author name to book title to the “handwritten” text within the cover image. This is fitting since Yau’s poetry does exactly that: it transgresses boundaries by forming strange (and often humorous) juxtapositions, by mischieviously crossing the wires of rationality.
“Leave a message when you’ve reached the end of your rope,” he says, blending together two bits of received language into a new and surprising amalgam. If the numerous references to corporate and beauracratic language (“We regret to inform you that you is no longer in stock”) and to what Guy Debord has called the “society of the spectacle” (“Why make a spectacle of yourself when lightning strikes us all?”) all suggest that the mechanisms of capitalism have thoroughly infiltrated the subject, then Exhibits seems to suggest a kind of Debordian détournement as an antidote to the mindless automatization of language.
It is not surprising then that we find Yau (he is surely one of our great parodists) clowning on established writers and thinkers from poet Robert Frost (“Two roads suspended operations in a yellow wood”) to linguist J.L. Austin (“Don’t open any windows unless you mean it”).
Yau’s ability to torque our idiom and charge it with meaning is evident in the following sentence, which simply but elegantly elides a single letter to utterly transform a piece of mundane signage: “Employees must ash their hands before returning to the barracks.” And here we realize that this word play isn’t all fun and games, but, in fact, may give us a greater purchase on our own troubled reality as we imagine soldiers with burnt hands being coerced back to their barracks by a regimented and, again, corporate directive.
Similarly, with our country reeling after the BP disaster in the Gulf, I sensed an uncomfortable and uncanny “reality effect” in Yau’s idiomatic antics and verbal wizardry:
“In case of emergency, please vacuum the premises.”
“Don’t be the latest shovel of wet cement to remove itself from the picture.”
“Money has become a vast dirty sea rolling over the land.”
Exhibits is exhibit A in the case for art. It is a wise and crucial book of koans for our administered culture; it is filled with pieces of illuminating and poetic advice — a needed counter to the Dr. Phil’s and Dr. Oz’s of the world.
Here’s another piece of advice: go to the latest Barnes and Noble, destroy the self-help section, and place this little book lovingly on the rubble.
Michael Leong is the author of the poetry books e.s.p., Cutting Time with a Knife, Who Unfolded My Origami Brain?, and Words on Edge. His creative work has been anthologized in THE &NOW AWARDS 2: The Best Innovative Writing, Best American Experimental Writing 2018, and Bettering American Poetry, Volume 3. His co-translation, with Ignacio Infante, of Vicente Huidobro’s long poem Sky-Quake: Tremor of Heaven is forthcoming from co•im•press in late 2019. His critical monograph Contested Records: The Turn to Documents in Contemporary North American Poetry is forthcoming from the University of Iowa Press in May 2020. He has received grants from the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses and the National Endowment for the Arts. He teaches in the School of Critical Studies at CalArts.