Jane Yeh, The Ninjas; Carcanet Press, £9.95

It’s sometimes said of poems inspired by paintings that they seem too dependent on the knowledge of something very specific outside them to stand on their own feet. Nothing could be less true of a poem like Yeh’s “The Wyndham Sisters (after Sargent)”. It begins:

Their satin shapes foretell an ambassador’s ball,
The fourth this season – such a dreadful bore. The long

Hand of evening comes forward as if to enfold them
Before the gas lamps go on. In the half-light their bodices

Softly glow, wrapped in oyster and ivory
Like expensive presents.

The sheer sensuous vividness of the writing is enough to make the poem an imaginative creation in its own right, but of course there’s far more to it than that. For a start, the senses involved aren’t limited to sight. “Softly glow”, for example, suggests the feel of the young women’s bodices and their bodies, as well as visual impressions of light and colour. Time is injected in the first line, and the device of free indirect thought is used in the second to push us into the viewpoint of the sisters (this applies to “softly glow”, as well – if “softly” suggests what their clothes and bodies would be like to touch, “glow” suggests the warmth the sisters themselves feel). By shifting between seeing the sisters from outside and seeing things from their own point of view the poet creates a kind of depth and ambiguity of suggestion that I would associate with sophisticated fiction more than with poetry. The tone changes sharply too, as in the swerve from the rapt voluptuousness of lines 4 and 5 to the tartness of line 6. Enjambments across strongly registered line endings heighten the sense that the angle of presentation is constantly changing. Later in the poem, Yeh will take us behind the actual picture in a kind of tracking shot round an “outside” where houses disappear to infinity and the patrolman does his rounds, downstairs to the basement where the servants toil, then upstairs with the maids carrying trays, and to the ballroom door. In all these ways she pulls us through the picture surface and makes us imaginatively inhabit what seems like a living fictional space full of a fraught interplay between sympathy towards, detachment from and positive antipathy to its subjects.

This is just one of a number of fine poems based on portraits. They invite repeated contemplation, and offer new suggestions every time one looks at them. Almost equally fine are her animal poems. These have an affinity with the poems inspired by paintings by virtue of being portraits of their subjects, presenting them framed in a kind of temporal suspension, marked by the past, overshadowed by the future but not actually moving forward in time. There’s a quite poignant contrast between our awareness of time (reading the marks of their history, imagining their future) and their own obliviousness of it (Yeh writes of her walrus “It’s almost comical / How unaware of the future he seems”).

Almost comical” is telling. There’s a great deal of comedy and wit, ranging from exuberantly cartoonish humour to the camp-tinged creepiness and beauty of the description of a night-lily that “climbs at night / To infect my sleep with tendrils and strange music”. There’s also a great deal of irony, both in the poet’s tone and in her acute awareness of the ironies of life. Many poems are sad, disturbing and uncomfortable, often almost in the same breath as they’re funny. They repeatedly suggest the inevitability of pain and loss, in the lives of the privileged no less than the lives of the oppressed. And there’s a persistent sense of loneliness and incompleteness, felt by the android of “Being an Android” (“Everyone admires my artificial skin, but nobody wants to touch it”) no less than by some of the human subjects. Even when they’re not explicitly stated, I think alienation and incompleteness are suggested by how often the subjects are presented in terms that have them uneasily straddling worlds – the android yearning to be more human even as he surpasses humans in so many ways, animals described in ironically anthropomorphic terms, figures in paintings caught between the flowing of time and the stasis of art, with their hopes and fears mocked by what is to come. One particularly interesting image of alienation comes at the end of a poem inspired by the Pet Rescue TV series. This describes damaged animals restored to happiness in a kind of veterinary heaven where they also find cross-species friends and adoptive family. It’s a poem about the overcoming of incompleteness and isolation but it ends with an image of the speaker staring at the television screen like Yeats’ image of Keats as a hungry child with his face pressed to a sweetshop window:

There is love all around. Through the screen
I feel its warmth. I press my face against the glass.

Yeh’s writing is much concerned, in richly ambiguous ways, with the gap between what art can imagine (whether the art be a Van Dyke portrait, science fiction or popular television) and what life delivers. Sometimes the emphasis falls on how life falls short of art, and sometimes on the warming and enhancing powers of the imagination.

She is a brilliant technician. Her acute visual sensibility, the sensuousness of her descriptions, her gift for the creation of striking metaphors, her sensitive orchestration of sound and the precision of her thought are all rich sources of pleasure for the reader. I hope I’ve suggested that there’s also a deeper pleasure that derives from something like a vision of life running through most of the book. Admittedly there were a few poems I couldn’t see as anything but technical exercises but even those poems that fail for me suggest a mind restlessly exploring technical and imaginative boundaries, and so contributed to my sense of Yeh’s weight.

I wrote this for Acumen 76, and would like to thank the editors for permission to post it here.


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