Jeffrey Yang’s latest book is Line and Light, a title that rhymes in a way with the title of his second collection, Vanishing-Line. Line and Light, his fourth full-length work, is sprawling, vast, like a city of poetry. It’s composed of five sections, all of them serial in form or spirit. The first and most ambitious, “Langkasuka,” spans sixty-three sections and a third of the book. It grows out of visits the poet took a decade ago to Kuala Lumpur, and takes its name from an ancient, creative utopia of a kingdom—one that disappeared, possibly because of self-induced catastrophe. No one knows. But the possibilities haunt the poem, and the poem’s poetics are all about haunting: about history and the pulse of the living individual, about the relationship between memory and the present, memory and the enduring song. Yang begins his poem with this couplet which, I think, beautifully stands in for the poetics he’s worked out of his entire career:
I open my eyes to forget
I close my eyes to remember
Other sequences in the book track an art installation—the lights of it, as night falls—built on an island in the Hudson, a sight Yang has studied on site and has observed during his commutes down the river from Beacon to New York City. Though he works now as an editor at New Directions, he began his study of poetry in part by immersing himself in the natural sciences and modern Chinese literature at the University of San Diego, a stone’s throw from the suburb he grew up in. The hauntedness of homesickness permeates his work, such as the section in Line and Light made in collaboration with the artist Kazumi Tanaka, whose tea-leaf paintings Yang embeds his translations of Hiroaki Sato:
The song brought me to a far place
And suddenly I was back home
Without having noticed my return
The results are gorgeous, hallucinatory, slipstreams of consciousness, deriving their power not only from Yang’s journeys into cultures ancient and present, but also from the way he moves so effortlessly, sometimes in telling a story, sometimes offering only fragments of philosophical or spiritual meditation. And it’s almost inevitable—but still breathtaking—when he arrives, at the book’s end, to a shorter poem—or sequence of discrete lines, it sometimes feels like, speaking to one another—called “The Ancestors.”
of the uprooted tree
JESSE NATHAN: What is your sense of a poet’s relation to history? Of your relation to history, in any case. As material, as force to be reckoned with. Is a poet a kind of historian?
JEFFREY YANG: Are all ages still contemporaneous in the mind? I think so, and poetry is where those connections and resonances can surface with boundless energy. This idea of history in poetry has been passed down to us through the modernists. When Pound calls an epic “a poem including history” in his 1934 essay “Date Line,” he immediately goes on to say that we can’t understand history without understanding economics. In other words, distinctions between disciplines and genres don’t really matter in poetry as they all become the matter of poetry. The presence of history in time is our presence. Certain presences one feels more strongly than others. History has been part of the material of poetry since Homer and the Shi Jing (Book of Songs).
But today a poet’s relation to history isn’t the same. I’ll choose a random but significant year that marks this shift dramatically in my lifetime: 1985, the year Susan Howe’s My Emily Dickinson appeared. One could also point to Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States in 1980. Kamau Brathwaite’s 1984 A History of the Voice is another sign. The crux being that we can no longer accept history as a given—a given narrative, a given high school textbook, a given tradition. Too many people have been written out, too many indigenous obliterated, too many languages erased, too much history told through the lens of privilege and power, through patriarchal violence, whitewashed American-European corporate profit exclusion internment military violence. What are the claims of historical time? Too much overlooked, suppressed, concealed. Poetry has bloomed and continues to bloom in the ruptures of history. A poet becomes questioner and examiner. A poet investigates and observes themselves investigating. Official accounts are no longer enough, far from enough, often detrimental and hurtful their pattern of lies and obfuscation and venal self-preservation. We trade in fictions; they archive a point of departure, a resonance board. We near the truth but like the sun dare not stare straight into it.
As your questions open up endless ruminations, I’ll just say one more thing about “Langkasuka” specifically. The impulse and compulsion for the writing of that serial poem was sustained more or less by this question: How can you relate the history of a kingdom and civilization with no preserved records or artifacts? And trying to answer that question by looking for the evidence that remains in the spirit of what exists and persists in art: shadow play, woodcarving, healing ceremonies, music, poetry. While the dao moves through the words and war always crosses the border. What emerges in poetry through history, to borrow Susan Howe’s line from her “Secret History of the Dividing Line,” are “Numerous singularities.”
Jesse Nathan’s first book of poems is Eggtooth.