Amazing Mr. Jeffrey Yang, Amazing Graywolf

by Weston Cutter

The temptation is to, right here, claim that Jeffrey Yang’s debut collection of poetry, An Aquarium, is the greatest book of poetry that’s been released this year, and what’s dicey is that, were it not such an absurdly rich year for poetry (B. Shaughnessy, JERICHO BROWN, Jorie Graham, C. D. Wright, Maureen McLane, Nick Laird, etc.), Mr. Yang’s just spellbindingly wonderful and beautiful and fun book of poetry would, hands-down, be the year’s best. As is, his An Aquarium is one of the top five or so collections of poetry, one of the top three debut collections of poems, and, from where I’m sitting, one of the most inviting, engaging, and world-encapsulating collections around.

            (Before we continue: my great small-publisher loves are, of course, Graywolf and New Directions. Mr. Jeffrey Yang is, no joke, the bridge between: his book’s published by Graywolf, and he works at New Directions. I feel a tremendous satisfaction at how things’ve overlapped.)

            The book’s just a sparkling and dazzling surge: starting with “Abalone” and going alphabetically to “Zooxanthellae” (with stops for things like “Rexroth” and “U.S.” and “[Time (Outside the Quincunx)]” and “Google” and “Intelligent Design”), the collection uses, as its frame, acquatic life. What’s funny, as you read, is that you realize how fascinating acquatic life actually is, and you may wonder why it is that there’s no great book/bestiary of underwater life.

            And the reason there still needs to be a great bestiary of underwater life is that Mr. Jeffrey Yang’s sights are set so, so much higher than on merely capturing the wild and darting life that lives in water: what he’s doing, through using an aquarium as a frame, is offering us a chance to see not fish-life, not just under-water-worlds, but to see everything—politics, ourselves, threats to planetary stability, emotions, etc. Don’t believe me? Here’s the first in the book, here’s “Abalone”:


Abalone Rumsen aulon

Aristotle auriform Costanoans

cultivated, Brueghel painted,

awabi Osahi dove for

on September 12, 425 A.D.

to please Emperor Ingyo but

was pulled up dead with one clutched in his hand.

Iridescent pearl, nebular swirl, meat all muscle

tastes like rubber. Its gonads a delicacy. Now

universities are funded to study its armor.

All earthly roads lead to war. But remember

haliotis are hemophiliacs—once cut

they bleed to death. Watch your heart.


In the first four lines there’s more of a mess of activity (that sounds negative, but I intend it as anything but) than you’ll find in most whole collections of poems, but J. Yang’s giving the reader that much verb, that much muchness, right from the start. From there into the lyric of what this poem’s actually doing/about (for the record: Abalone’s commonly called an ear shell; no, that’s not halitosis, but haliotis, which is the genus Abalone’s part of), J. Yang keeps just ferocious speed, into the past (line five), empire (six), sacrifice/fealty (seven), actual bio-physiology (eight and nine). Etc. The point is: Mr. Jeffrey Yang’s packing a level of movement and explosion into his poems that’s, I think, terribly rare—and, reading his book, you realize how huge the pleasure of motion is re: poetry.

            There’s no way to get at the full extent of this book’s greatness: I could (should, probably) go through every single poem in here and show example after example of the amazements this book (barely) contains. There are at least four languages used throughout, though probably more; p. 22 has one of the greatest movements of words I’ve seen ever, anywhere (it’s a little quintuplet of words, and I think they’re blurbed on the book’s back, but seriously: they’re like some magic, riddly koan); this book, somehow, in detailing (in cummings’ phrase) the intense fragility of the earth we’re living on, instills in the reader something like an emotional toughness, a newly-lit faith/desire/whatever to go out and be amazed at the life around. To be willing to say, okay, that’s a starfish, but maybe there’s more to a starfish than I knew.

            This book’ll leave you gasping; this review doesn’t come anywhere near to doing it justice. Graywolf has, for years, had all sorts of great stuff come out which gets noticed and tagged for year-end lists and awards (most recently: The End, which everyone should read, too: holy crap that thing’s good), and Mr. Jeffrey Yang’s An Aquarium is a perfect example of one of those books that you’ll, with luck, be hearing about all over the place, very soon.

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