John Yau’s Bijoux in the Dark (Letter Machine Editions, 2018)

Whoever said that April is the cruelest month never had to close out an academic semester in May. But here’s a bit of pleasure reading–from John Yau’s excellent new book Bijoux in the Dark (Letter Machine Editions, 2018)–an oasis among the administrative convolutions, the bureaucratic onslaughts, the department and sub-committee meetings, the unending .edu emailings, the papers to grade…


My genitals aren’t worth blistering to
Chinatown smells like brown cheese

Old men still spit on sidewalk
while smoking cigarettes

next to bandaged sprinkler system
Obesity might not be the name

you sat down with
but it’s never going to let you up

This could have happened anywhere
You don’t need a disaster to know you are one

It’s time to retire that smiling potato
No tomorrow to hang your hat on

When did happiness get so chewy
You have officially become an event

You look like you want
to end up in a trash bag

Sky full of half-bitten stars
Are we just a sack of crumbs

falling from one more catastrophe
I used to date a mannequin in a space suit

Whenever I look out the porthole
I can see the planet that ejected me

It is because I am too human
or not quite human enough

Time to turn in old frequencies
Join other raincoats in a painting

No pain can reach me there

And big congrats to John for recently winning Poets & Writers2018 Jackson Prize, which comes with a $60,000 award! A big win for Asian-American poetry, for sure. This is the citation from judges Laura Kasischke, Robin Coste Lewis, and Arthur Sze:

John Yau composes expansive variations, in series, that simultaneously widen, deepen, and complicate the scope of a poem. Visual art, film, and Surrealism are rivers in his work, yet it’s Yau’s dazzling imagination and singular command of language that create unforgettable poems: “Now that the seven wonders of the night / have been stolen by history //Now that the sky is lost and the stars / have slipped into a book // Now that the moon is boiling / like the blood where it swims // Now that there are no blossoms left / to glue to the sky // What can I do, / I who never invented anything // and who dreamed of you so much / I was amazed to discover // the claw marks of those / who preceded us across this burning floor.” In employing voices that reveal the multiple and shadowy selves inside the self, in lyrical poems with an experimental and innovative bent, yet laced with unexpected and biting humor—“I wink at you from infinity”—in twenty-four books of poetry, fiction, essays, and collaborations with visual artists—many of which are out of print—John Yau has created a compelling body of work.

My article “Neo-Surrealism’s Forked Tongue” on John Yau and 2016 Jackson Prize winner Will Alexander appeared in Contemporary Literature 55.3 (Fall 2014).

~ by Michael Leong on May 4, 2018.

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