An Aquarium, Jeffrey Yang. (Graywolf Press) $15.00
Jeffrey Yang is an editor at New Directions, and his poetry evidences his wide exposure to world literature, manifested both in allusions—with poems featuring the literature and philosophy of peoples from around the world, ranging from the indigenous Miskito of coastal Nicaragua to Vishnu Ivara, as well as mythology name dropping on behalf of the Hawaiians, Maya, Olmec, and others—and in tone. The book catalogues the contents of Yang’s world aquarium alphabetically, beginning with his poem “Abalone,” and ending with “Zooxanthellae.” Yang often ends descriptive sequences with straightforward and contextually quaint declarations, an effect that occasionally strikes out but works on the whole. He ends his poem “Dolphin,” for example, with:
Scientists tell us that if we
rearrange a few of our genes,
we’d become dolphins. Wouldn’t
that be real progress!
which indeed seems too quaint for contemporary poetry. In “Eel,” the poem immediately following that one, however, he uses it to great effect and with sly humor, as in the best aphorisms:
Eels are slimy creatures.
But they never lie. If they sense
the slightest pretence, they’ll
bite off your finger. Carefully
study the hands of politicians.
Not all of Yang’s alphabetical poems are about sea creatures, dry land titles include “Intelligent Design,” and “Rexroth.”
Altogether a noteworthy book, An Aquarium engages world literature in an important dialogue. It contains allusions worth investigating further, a scientific but unpretentious vocabulary, and an assortment of interesting facts, like that “The barnacle has the longest penis / of any animal in proportion / to its body size.”
The Gigantic Robot, Tom Gauld. (Buenaventura Press) $16.95
Described by Daniel Clowes as “A perfect little book,” Tom Gauld’s 32-page board book for adults captures perfectly the understatement of the children’s board book. His translation of the medium works well for his subject matter, the construction and eventual neglect of an instrument of war, an occurrence too often shrouded in political jargonese or ideological oversimplification. Social philosophy aside, Gauld is a contemporary Gorey, reminiscent of the late illustrator both in his minimal style and the terse, simple narration that accompanies his illustrations, differing in his political inclinations. The book is easy to flip through, but like its smaller board book cousins, it grows richer with each re-read.