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Poetics: Two Books of Poetry by Yu-Han Chao and David E. Oprava

By Steve Finbow.

I wrote in an email that “poetry is dead – dead – dead.” I went on to say that the only use for poetry is as training for writing prose; that the skill used in finding the perfect word, the honed phrase, should be placed in the service of the short story or the novel. Maybe if all writers started their scribbling lives writing maldit-comiats, planhs, sestinas, sonnets, and villanelles we wouldn’t have the bloated 500-page-plus word-bricks that litter 3 for 2 tables. I can’t write poetry any more. Poetry deserted me fifteen years ago. I still read poetry – occasionally – Ted Berrigan, Charles Bernstein, Ron Silliman, Robert Creeley. And then these two slim volumes landed on my doormat. I’ll think on.

Yu-Han Chao – We Grow Old – The Backwater Press, 2008.

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Poems of succulence and tactility, Taiwanese-born and American-resident Yu-Han Chao’s first collection of poetry reads like sherbet toffee; there’s that fizzing feeling in the back of one’s throat, the eyes waiting to tear, the impossibly minuscule word bombs on the tongue. The imagery moves from the banal and accurate, ‘I had very little hair and a triangular mouth’ to the mystical and mythic ‘“It keeps ghosts out,” I say, because ghosts have no feet to lift, they can’t cross a raised threshold.”’ The prose poems link nostalgia to exile, family to loneliness. Yu-Han Chao’s world depends on ancestors, place, and food – some of the descriptions of fruits, meats, and vegetables had me salivating. Geography – be it China, Taiwan, or the USA – grounds the poems, which are sometimes so delicate the words feel as if they are lifting from the page. Yet, the overriding motif in these poems – particularly in ‘Threadbare Time’ and ‘My Father’ – is time and its vicissitudes. Memory is powerful here; grandparents and parents haunt the pages, almost as skin ghosts playing out the poet’s imagination in a theatre of remembrance.

‘For the Water’

I guess you will be a swimmer for the rest of your life. And no matter how old you are, the lifeguards will still hate you. You will still tell them to shut up and they will still complain about you in Chinese and vulgar Taiwanese to the other swimmers, talking fast so you can’t understand. But you don’t care. You’re seventy years old; you’re there for the water.

We Grow Old is lyrical new historicism – artifacts become metaphors, the poems trade in metonymical goods, brash and modern Taiwan slips into the pages beside ancient and mythical China, decay and death surround sex and sensuality. Like black kites, practical in their architecture and artistry, the poems sore, casting beautiful shadows on the cigarette-butt strewn earth. There is a depth in these poems belying the poet’s age, a wry nod to the past and a positive thrust for the future. Yu-Han Chao forms language into near-perfect paragraphs, enfolds the beautiful with the grotesque, Disneyland melds with nature, suicide with birth. As a whole, the poems form a concordance of experience and imagination, a series of imagistic takes on life – not overly formalist, and not evidently experimental, but honest, funny, and sometimes scary. The postmodern as poetic journal – the journal of a young poet who has something to say and knows how to say it. Finally, the book itself is exquisite, the cover drawing is by Yu-Han Chao and my copy was tied with red string and contained a carved and illustrated bookmark. Books should be like this.

David E. Oprava – VS. – erbacce-press, 2008

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American exile and expatriate David E. Oprava also painted the illustration on his book cover. Oprava’s first collection of poetry opens with ‘Segue’ a poem that does exactly what it says, it segues into themes that are universal – strikingly similar to those in Yu-Han Chao’s poetry, in fact – but whereas We Grow Old is ruminative and delicious, VS. (as its title suggests) is muscular and headlong. Reminiscences are for those who are bored and are boring, experience is here and now – touch it, it might bite. Language – that’s what it’s for – like bacon bits – to crumble over the macaroni cheese of everyday existence. Sometimes Oprava uses free verse, sometimes prose; in one poem his breath is like that of Allen Ginsberg – long, free – and then in the next poem like that of Robert Creeley – staccato, metric. In poems such as ‘Babysat,’ Oprava foregrounds language in much the same way as Clark Coolidge and Ray DiPalma do; whereas, in ‘My Me’ the references are to Charles Bukowski and Dan Fante. That’s not to say that Oprava is the mutant offspring of two generations of poets. His voice erupts out of the influential chorus with a scolding and supple tongue, self-deprecatory yet insightful, moved to tears and yet moved to incite – rebellious and romantic. Some poems – ‘Lesbian Bukkake Squirt Party’ being the most memorable – roil with invective, social commentary, everyday objects squat among the torrents of poetic invective, nearly out of control but then reined back in with humour and constrained abandon. Oprava’s longer poems, ‘Bobby Quatrain: Rock God Poet’ and ‘Twelve’ are prose poems with narrative heft and lyrical/brutal decoration – characters, so often ciphers in poetry – evolve within the paragraph/verses, have presence, and there is an idea of America here – America the mythic and the maligned, the dream and the nightmare, the prayer and the desecration.

RARE

Watching the butcher’s son
play pin-the-cleaver
on the cow at his birthday party.
Occasionally, he misses.

These poems are contemporary haibun – a form used by the Japanese poet Bashō to record everyday experience outside the mathematical constrictions of the haiku. Oprava takes the form and expands it so that the prose narratives comment on the lyrical verses and the metaphysical experiences encountered there. Experiences that are raw, energetic, and honest become rapturous, mad, and truthful. Bashō used the haibun form in his travel writing and David E. Oprava’s VS. is a journey through and within non-academic forms of 20th and 21st century poetry, creating on its way, new slip roads and off-ramps. VS. is – to steal the English title of Bashō’s most famous travelogue Oku no Hosomichi – the narrow road to the interior – a road less travelled by more cowardly poets – let’s be thankful David E. Oprava had the guts to set foot on that road.

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ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Steve Finbow’s new novel Balzac of the Badlands is out October 2009.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, October 28th, 2008.