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Jane Yeh - The Ninjas

(Carcanet Press, Manchester: 2012. Paperback, 80pp. £9.95)
 
Reviewed by Eleanor Perry 
 
Cover of Jane Yeh - The NinjasAnyone familiar with Jane Yeh’s debut collection, Marabou, will know to expect something vibrant and eccentric from her latest book of poetry, The Ninjas. The poems in it are charmingly accessible; bizarre, broken fairy-tale worlds and sci-fi nightmares littered with quirky and absurd images. Yeh’s forte is the creation of weird and whimsical narratives, and there is no shortage of those in the collection, the best of which incorporate themes of alienation, desolation, cultural decay and social inequality. The offbeat humour is playful and strange, deftly fusing the everyday with magic and make-believe: bears teach an android how to flirt, ninjas make Lancashire hotpots, and witches train mice to steal jewellery. These are voices of misfits and outsiders, clandestine groups and secret societies, who lurk on the peripheries of reality, plotting revenge or just wanting to be noticed. Yeh creates a stark contrast between the bleak and the humorous that makes these poems delightfully disquieting.
 
Among the most dazzling and disturbing of these are her ekphrastic poems, such as ‘The Balbi Children (after Van Dyck)’ and ‘The Wyndham Sisters (after Sargent)’,  which explore the hollowness of aristocratic opulence. Rich young women are ‘wrapped in oyster and ivory / Like expensive presents’ while ‘A colossal salmon mousse / Droops on its platter’ and wealthy little children pose awkwardly for portraits that leave ‘their faces behind like masks / On the empty canvas’. Lavishly descriptive lines recreate a sense of plushness and luxury, but this is underpinned with ennui and hopelessness. ‘When will anything happen?’ asks ‘Manet’s Olympia’, while her frustrated maid ‘thinks of cream cakes and breaking the rules’. Here is a beauty laced with decay, with disappointment, and with purposelessness. It is a theme which recurs throughout the collection and works wonderfully in poems such as ‘The Lilies’, whose ‘mouths are filled with sugar and organs’ and whose ‘stems are filled with pity and vodka.’ Here Yeh skilfully reveals the vacuity behind aesthetic beauty, which later, in ‘The Night-Lily’, becomes something darker; something ‘insidious’ which ‘sings […] like a cadaver’. 
 
‘An American Panda Leaves the National Zoo’ is an interesting take on cultural appropriation and the vanity of consumer culture; ‘Will they have / Webcams in China? I don’t want to live / Like a wild panda, with no one watching.’ ‘Give me another ice lolly,’ the panda demands from his ‘custom-built grotto’ and ‘floofy bedding’. This idea of consumerist superficiality is revisited in ‘Five Years Ago’, when ‘Nobody watched extreme lambing or competitive plumbing on TV’ and ‘a disposable razor with only four blades was the height of sophistication.’ 
 
The collection has an overarching concern with futility and a sense of the inevitable that comes to the fore in the tragic and inescapable demise of both the Walrus and the Jellyfish, both of which are exquisitely brought to life in strikingly descriptive lines only to meet a pitiful and lonely end. But nothing can be done, seems to be the message. Ruin and failure are unavoidable; ‘no-one can survive’; ‘everything dies’. 
 
It is when Yeh combines her distinctive and peculiar humour with darker themes that the poems are at their most luminous, desolate and enjoyably unsettling. Towards the end of the collection though, the poems seem to lose a large part of their lustre. This is due, in part, to a particular repetition of form, which has an effect not unlike dilution. Certain poetic structures are repeated in exactitude until they eventually lose their charm. The first section of ‘Sargent’s The Daughters of Edward D. Boit’ is almost identical to ‘The Balbi Children (after Van Dyck)’ in structure; ‘Jellyfish’, ‘Walrus’ and ‘Musk-Ox’ all follow the same format; and the continual use of the one-sentence-long line beginning ‘They’ (as in ‘They eat four-cheese pizzas with three of the cheeses removed’ from ‘On Ninjas’) is used repeatedly to the same effect in ‘The Robots’, ‘The Birds’, ‘The Witches’, ‘The Ghosts’, ‘The Kittens’, and ‘The Lilies’. You could question the value of continually revisiting a subject via the exact same form, and at times there is a sense that perhaps more might have been achieved through a little diversity and experiment.
 
Towards the end of the collection, some poems appear to deliberately reject the themes of inevitable sadness and alienation in favour of a more hopeful, and at times somewhat sickly-sweet, tone. ‘The Kittens’ treads a fine line between cutesy and nauseating, ‘Pet Rescue’ errs too much on the side of the saccharine, while the final poem, ‘This Morning’, has the polished optimism of a Hollywood movie ending. ‘I think I might believe’, Yeh announces in the final line. I’m not sure I do: this tone of hope seems a little too shrill, too strained, and rings a too hollow in light of earlier poems which balanced the beautiful and the bleak so adroitly. Lines like ‘It’s ridiculous to be so full of honey for a living’ seem dismally over-sweet in comparison to the notes of despair encountered in poems like ‘Sargent’s The Daughters of Edward D. Boit’, in which one girl ‘Dreams herself into colour a limb at a time’ while another says ‘When all of us are old, nobody we know now will be left.’ 
 
That said, there’s no question that these poems have important things to say about being human in the modern world, and that they say them in a way that is both original and extraordinary. Yeh is an expert at crafting strikingly unfamiliar worlds out of the commonplace and the unremarkable, and this collection is bound to appeal to a broad range of poetry readers.
 
 
16 March 2014