There is great appeal in the work of poets who can artfully contain a series of ideas in a brief piece of verse, the goal being to turn philosophical precepts into the glitter surface of a poem’s allure and still address an issue quite beyond the more comfortable subjects of beauty or an aesthetically constrained idea of Truth, capial “T”. Jeffrey Yang’s first collection, An Aquarium (Graywolf Press) is a series of poems that at first seem like they concern themselves exclusively with ocean life; indeed they do, but the author is shrewd in seeing what other areas, outside the aquarium tank, these creatures touch upon. Yang offers up a view on how we think about things. Here, in the poem Parrotfish , the creature is nearly lost as the poems starts like the first sentence of an encyclopedia entry and quickly turns into a bit of cocktail chatter seeming between artists, secret agents and critics, all of whom sacrifice the subject in favor of extending their rhetorical devices.
The life phases of a parrotfish
are expressed in colors.By day,
the parrotfish replenishes coral reef
sands, and by night spins
its mucous cocooned-
room. Is this art's archetype
abstracted from politics?
Picasso thought abstraction a cul-de-
sac. The CIA loved Abstract
Expressionism. Hockney: "I
don't think that there is really such a thing
as abstraction." Langer:"All genuine art
What do you think parrot-
I think the aim is to undermine the insidious intent of rhetorical questions that frame ready made political assumptions. The question in "Is this art's archetype abstracted from politics" forces agreement from the reader though it's disingenuous appeal to a person's vanity, from which an argument may be made for agendas that have little to with art, parrotfish, or life in general. This is the use of language that treats the things in nature as if they were symbols, real or potential, for great oppositions at war in an unseen metaphysical realm.
Yang seems aware that there is a very human tendency to regard the world outside our senses as though it were a linear narrative being played out, with virtues reducible to good v evil, beauty v vulgarity, honesty v criminal intent being the principle extremes in play. The narrative form , the storyline, is a convenient way of making the raw experience comprehensible, but taking a cue from Heidegger's work in phenomenology, Yang would have us be aware that the parrotfish and its environmental niche are not abstractions of anything but rather expressions of their own life. "Back to the data", as the man said and, in the choice phrase of the confounding Ezra Pound ,"the natural object is already the adequate symbol".
He follows the erring assumptions to an unsual but logical conclusion: the symbol of beauty and abstraction must surely be brilliant intellectually, and so must, by default, have an opinion of the matter. He places us in witness to an absurdity: intelligent men, seduced by their nuanced sophistry, asking a fish for an informed opinion.
Yang seems to me to be making fun of the way we call things either "beautiful" or "abstract"; for all the sophisticated and nuanced reasons critics, theologians and agents of intrigue approach the subject, the competing philosophies all fall short, far short of articulating something truly tangible. The irony is that the embodiment of all this speculation, the lexicon-heavy guess work to a thing's essence, is not aware that it is beautiful, abstract, or is somehow an embodiment of a set of ideas that are meant to change the world. The parrotfish isn't even aware that it's a parrotfish, which is entirely the point--it is too busy being part of the the rest of it's underworld. Unlike human beings, who are continually trying to separate themselves from nature so that they may subjugate it a little more.