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This review is taken from PN Review 247, Volume 45 Number 5, May - June 2019.

Cover of Discipline
MaitreyabandhuLike a Sausage
Jane Yeh, Discipline (Carcanet) £9.99
Jane Yeh’s poems are at their best when estranged, deadpan comedy touches a sore spot: loneliness, failed romance, fear. In Discipline, her third and arguable best collection, this tension between droll comedy and private suffering is at its most disquieting. Reading Jane Yeh is like listening to an eccentric aunt tell absurd stories while she rings for the maid to clear away the breakfast things: we can hear the tinkle of the far-off bell in a freezing scullery or some filthy back kitchen, but the room we’re sitting in is perfectly delightful. The effect is one of intense privacy despite all the charm.

In part, Yeh achieves this effect by seeming to describe ordinary things in an ordinary way, without embellishments or poetics. But this is subterfuge: what we actually get is peculiar things, oddly described. There is something twisted at work. The self-consciously flat style, the list-like end-stopped or almost end-stopped lines, the drollery, the eschewal of elaborate syntax are all of a piece with her bad-girl urbanity and lack of sentimentality. Ironic and askance, these poems cannot be serious, and yet one has a horrible feeling that they are. It is like watching Buster Keaton as another falling building narrowly misses him.

And the falling buildings in Discipline are indeed funny. In the wonderful ‘Self Portrait as a Spinster’, for instance, we hear that, ‘To be unloved is like listening to a progress report on courgettes – for months’. This comes in one flat, can’t-be-bothered-with-enjambment line. Later in the same poem we read, ‘It was okay to be alone, like a sausage in a garden full of flowers’ – picking up, perhaps, on its faint reference to Wordsworth’s ‘lonely as a cloud’ and those daffodils. Comedy in Discipline is not always evasive, sometimes it’s just a good gag: ‘Pizza will come in two sizes: snack and preposteroso’ (‘Utopia Villas’) and, ‘If this movie could talk, it would have a squeaky voice like a nerd in a Hollywood movie, even though most nerds actually have normal voices’ (‘These Movies’). But at its sharpest, the laughs of Discipline are hollow, black, tragicomic laughs, tinged with desperation: ‘Behind every day is another // Freaking day: run and gun, trail of breadcrumbs, / The bureau of shrunken heads’ (‘The Detective’). Even Yeh’s use of old-fashioned initial caps, forming a spine down the poem, enhances the conscious stiffness and alienation of her voice; they help make the poems squeak and shriek: ‘Some of the Cats, / Played drastic minuets on diminutive grand pianos.’ (‘A Short History of Destruction’):

The traffic stops and goes past, a mechanical river.
A siren goes off in the distance somewhere, like somebody crying.
    (‘Happy Hour, New York City’)

The pain here is not merely private, however. There is nothing self-absorbed about Yeh’s work. Reading her three Carcanet collections, one learns next to nothing about her. At best we glean a likening for cats and women’s fashion; an interest in art (John Singer Sargent in The Ninjas, Watteau in Marabou, 1970s performance art and Kirsten Glass in Discipline); a taste for mixing high and low subject matter; and a sense of humour. In this new collection, the persistent background loneliness of The Ninjas, with its robots and androids, its ‘Attack of the Crystalline Entity’, opens out to include larger themes: climate change, migration and violence. In the perfectly judged ‘A Short History of Migration’, for instance, pain is communal and historical. Yeh is the daughter of Taiwanese migrants, so the subject has personal significance too. But she will not indulge. The deadpan humour is used to devastating effect: ‘We ate the same meal seventeen days in a row (pancakes).’ Then later, ‘We hindered our children with violins, bad haircuts, and diplomas.’

There is so much to enjoy in Discipline, such as ‘The Detectives’, ‘Self-Portrait as New York in the Eighties’ and the strange love poem ‘A Short History of Patience’: ‘Won’t you come home? / Says the dustpan to the wandering broom’. ‘True Facts About the Herring Gull’ – ‘Most of the cries mean Give me your chips’ – along with the very oblique self-portrait ‘The Rhinos’ and the tender ‘Pacific Pocket Mouse’, which add to her growing list of admirable animal poems. But there are dangers. Firstly, the danger of whimsy, of the poems ending up as mere oddities: weightless, for a single reading only. Secondly, the very flatness of the style can become rather too self-consciously stylish – a fashionable ‘estrangement’ sliding into a merely alienated account of how alienated we are:

Every line
Is a performance that won’t stay up. My kingdom for a joke.
    (‘Self Portrait as Klaus Nomi in New York’)

Thirdly and lastly there is the danger of a kind of chic, risk-free nihilism, where everything is meaningless and therefore a bit of a joke (imagine the New Testament recited by Andy Warhol). Yeh seems aware of this danger, closing ‘Poem in Which All the Questions Are Answered’ with, ‘When it’s over, you can pretend you never cared about it anyway’. But it is a temptation. If I were a member of some kind of intergalactic poetry police force sent to earth to admonish versifiers, I’d scribble ‘Excellent!’ in the margins of most of the poems in Discipline, then I’d caution her to write a book-length poem about growing up in New Jersey with Taiwanese parents.

This review is taken from PN Review 247, Volume 45 Number 5, May - June 2019.

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