Peter Sihjeldahl (review date spring-summer 1981)
SOURCE: Sihjeldahl, Peter. “Cabin Fever.” Parnassus: Poetry in Review 9, no. 1 (spring-summer 1981): 294-95.
[In the following excerpt, Sihjeldahl offers a favorable assessment of The Sleepless Night of Eugene Delacroix.]
John Yau's intense, high-strung prose-poetry [in The Sleepless Night of Eugene Delacroix] makes use of the Borgesian conceit that pastness equals ancientness. This conceit is a remarkable survival of the pre-Romantic European “picturesque”—all those late-eighteenth-century pictures of overgrown ruins—given a second life in nineteenth-century popular literature and a third in the poetics of modernist lostness and irony. It has appealed particularly to sensibilities, like Borges', that are top-heavy with sophistication in cultures, like Argentina's, that are bottom-heavy with barbarity. Yau is Chinese-American, which, pending a denial from him, I choose to think germane somehow. He is very Borgesian indeed in pieces like “The Abandoned Observatory,” set in a Morocco of the mind inlaid with realistic detail. The best thing for me about these pastiches is that Yau writes them in American English, not in the eerily flat translated-Spanish idiom of our surrealist mandarins.
In this city everything is red, except at night, when the air conditioners are turned off, and the window onto the balcony is opened to let in moonlight. The change in color is such a relief I stop smoking.
If stylistic freshness in this kind of exoticism were all he had to recommend him, Yau would not be prepossessing. As it happens, he has also written some strictly autobiographical fragments that crack the bejeweled shell of the elegiac prose poem and bring its almost unbearable contents into the light. The best, called “Electric Drills,” associates a harrowing memory of the poet's father to memories of recuperation from devastating car-accident injuries. The energy of the piece is deeply defiant—defiant of the sort of hopeless depression that Yau's more conventional works poeticize. The style is brutally factual, even when the association of memories is joined.
I was tied to the operating table. I managed to sit up and see one of the doctors drilling through my left leg, just below the knee. The drill was green, like the living room of the apartment on Beacon Hill.
The flatness of “Electric Drills” is heroic, not poignant. It is an instrument for the naming of terror. No catharsis or transcendence, no seduction of the reader. I admire it tremendously.