Peter Sihjeldahl (review date spring-summer 1981)

(Poetry Criticism)

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.

Clayton Eshleman (review date 7 August 1983)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Eshleman, Clayton. “A Poetry of Omens and Memories.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (7 August 1983): 3, 9.

[In the following favorable review of Corpse and Mirror, Eshleman contends that Yau's poetic abilities establish him “as one of the most genuinely gifted poets of his reticently emerging generation.”]

Corpse and Mirror, selected by John Ashbery as one of the five “National Poetry Series” books this year, is John Yau's seventh collection. It is clearly the most experimental, and probably the strongest, book to appear in the series publishing five books each year, now in its fifth year.

One might begin to think...

(The entire section is 885 words.)

B. H. Friedman (review date October-November 1992)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Friedman, B. H. “Always Street-Smart.” American Book Review 14, no. 4 (October-November 1992): 20.

[In the following favorable assessment of Big City Primer, Friedman describes the collaboration between Yau and photographer Bill Barrette.]

In these pages, in 1982, I reviewed the first six books of John Yau's poetry. I liked his work then, and I like it now, seven books later. His most recent volume, Big City Primer, is a collaboration between him and Bill Barrette, photographer and sculptor. Barrette's shifting vision—sometimes frontal, sometimes angular, always street-smart—and his technical ability to present the intense blacks and...

(The entire section is 942 words.)

Edward Halsey Foster (essay date March 1994)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Foster, Edward Halsey. “John Yau and the Seductions of Everything That Used to Be.” Multicultural Review 3, no. 1 (March 1994): 36-9.

[In the following essay, Foster discusses Yau as a Chinese American poet, contending that “his work has much wider implications than such labels may imply.”]

You ask. What words will return us to the words we were using yesterday? …

Instead of answering, I tell you that I have decided to return my hands to their owners, and begin packing for the journey to the bus station.

John YauBig Island...

(The entire section is 1872 words.)

Marjorie Perloff (review date summer 1997)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Perloff, Marjorie. Review of Forbidden Entries, by John Yau. Boston Review 22, no. 3 (summer 1997): 39-41.

[In the following review, Perloff surveys the broad stylistic and emotional range of verse in Forbidden Entries.]

John Yau has always cultivated the image of Angry Young Man. The picture of him on the back cover of one of his early books, Sometimes (Sheep Meadow Press, 1979) presents the poet, his eyes hidden behind sunglasses, slouching on a bench in old army fatigues, his long black unkempt hair, moustache, cigarette dangling from his unsmiling mouth, and matchbook open ready for the strike giving him the appearance of streetwise tough guy,...

(The entire section is 1570 words.)

Juliana Chang (review date fall 1998)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Chang, Juliana. Review of Forbidden Entries, by John Yau. MELUS 23, no. 3 (fall 1998): 226-28.

[In the following evaluation, Chang examines the ways in which Yau utilizes racial identity and stereotyping in Forbidden Entries.]

The poetic and critical writings of John Yau present an intriguing site of investigation into questions of racial authenticity. Because Yau's writings in general do not address racialized identity in a straightforward, explicit manner, it is difficult for critics of multicultural literature to read his work as “representative” of ethnic/racial experience. What is remarkable, however, is that Yau's ethnic and racial authenticity...

(The entire section is 966 words.)

Tom Devaney (review date fall 2002)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Devaney, Tom. Review of Borrowed Love Poems, by John Yau. Rain Taxi Online 7, no. 3 (fall 2002) http://www.raintaxi.com/online/2002fall/yau.shtml.

[In the following review, Devaney asserts that “spilling over with formal mastery, Borrowed Love Poems is an utterly pleasurable collection.”]

John Yau's recent Borrowed Love Poems is a dazzling exploration of deft and unforgiving openness. The poems engage the reader with a wide and wild array of characters, disembodied and otherwise, with an imaginative and capacious use of the lyric “I.” It is a collection fed on a steady diet of movies, modernism, and all manner of mercurial identity,...

(The entire section is 418 words.)

Daniel Morris (essay date 2002)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Morris, Daniel. “‘Death and Disaster’: John Yau's Painterly Poems.” In Remarkable Modernisms, pp. 41-60. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2002.

[In the following essay, Morris analyzes the relationship of Yau's art criticism and his poems “Electric Drills” and “The Telephone Call.”]

John Yau's art writings illustrate the new modernism in that he revises the narrative history of painting in the United States since about 1940. Like Creeley and Frank O'Hara before him, Yau is also able to write ground-breaking poems because he is what Marjorie Perloff called “a poet among the painters,” an author who adapts nonliterary means into his...

(The entire section is 8137 words.)

Zhou Xiaojing (essay date winter 2004)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Xiaojing, Zhou. “Postmodernism and Subversive Parody: John Yau's ‘Genghis Chan: Private Eye’ Series.” College Literature 31, no. 1 (winter 2004): 73-102.

[In the following essay, Xiaojing argues that Yau's “Genghis Chan” series “connects postmodernism in poetry to debates about postmodernism and Asian American identity in ways that engage larger issues concerning the relationship between postmodern discourses and minority American literatures.”]

Alluding to critical reception of his poetry, John Yau refers to himself as “the poet who is too postmodern for the modernists and too modern for the postmodernists” (1994, 40). Yau's poems evoke...

(The entire section is 11791 words.)