2012, Breaking News, Carcanet, Four Sisters, Jane Yeh, Next Generation Poets 2014, Playing Dead, poem, poems, Poetry, Poetry Book Society, review, Sargent's The Daughters of Edward D Boit, Scenes from My My Life as Sherlock Holmes, The Ninjas, verse
Wandering Stirling Castle this summer, I kept my camera(phone) holstered. In a baronial hall, holidaymakers queued to pose in a high-backed-chair-cum throne. What turned the stomach was that it’d been sited there to add yet another photo-opportunity to the itinerary of digitally uploaded moments. Any self-respecting 21st century tourist needs these to prove that s/he’s oh such a wacky photographer, and that a rare ol’ time was had by all. In teaching today, a key focus for e-safety is helping young people to appreciate how their friends’ avatars, timelines and photos are pure wish-fulfillment. The sunshine and laughter of the timeline makes those without it feel miserable and excluded. Kids are digital adepts and inconveniently bored-looking mates are cropped from the margins of parties. Even the dullest of days can be saturated with colour thanks to digital sliders – never has a generation looked like it’s having so much fun.
In The Ninjas, Jane Yeh reminds us that it was ever thus. In Four Sisters, the first in a sequence of poems addressing John Singer Sargent’s group portrait, The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, ‘each girl has got her best dress on. / At dawn, they were washed and brushed and tied / Into pinnies.’ The girls are waiting to be shot at dawn – who cares how they felt, as long as the picture looks sensational? Yeh’s line break at ‘tied’ evokes the bondage of childhood and the pinnies are the final irony: the pinafore symbolised girlishness, as, like a modern apron, it offered some opportunity to the child to play, despite her otherwise limiting clothing. Not so on this occasion. These pinafores are costumes to conjure the look of childhood. In the final poem in the sequence, Playing Dead, the children are feral: ‘The girls crowd round his easel like frilly pigeons, / Chattering. The allure of children / Escapes him – they seem // To be everywhere. He waits / For them to stretch, scratch, yawn, pull on / Each other’s hems, then puts them back in their places // Again.’ The limpid tranquility of the girls, as characterised by the portrait, contrasts with the frenetic weight of the girls’ verbs: crowd, chattering, stretch, scratch, yawn and pull. Their childishness is exhausting and tedious, as the resigned stanza break before ‘Again’ suggests. The imagery is bestial and misogynistic, with ‘frilly pigeons’ suggesting that Sargent views the girls as decorative, lobotomized and trivial. The poem darkens further, as ‘The painting ends with the girls released – // They vanish, leaving their faces behind like masks / On the empty canvas.’ ‘Masks’ suggests that identity is a performance and that people have the freedom to swap them as the occasion demands, but the girls have not left masks behind, they have left their faces. They are reduced to husks, and the blocks of colour on the canvas morph into something more existentially troubling.
Lists are a viral online phenomenon – and BuzzFeed’s crack cocaine is surely a brake applied to the nation’s GDP. Yeh revels in these lists and they punctuate her collection with their surreal bricolage. Scenes from My Life as Sherlock Holmes opens with: ‘1. Feeling around for ideas in the dungeonette / 2. Scattershot remnants of tulle and fur / 3. To quell an especially decorative urge / 4. The taxidermy machine in the hall.’ The delight Yeh takes in language is a joy, as the diminutive suffix -ette performs a minor miracle, as the reader’s mental picture of the dungeon becomes domestic, bijou.
Rolling news culture is referenced in the title, Breaking News, and it’s exploited to comic and dramatic effect: ‘Yesterday, the black cat that sits on the bin next door wasn’t sitting on the bin. / • The price of porcine commodities rose slightly, while that of the English breakfast at my local café remained the same / • Nobody attempted to assassinate the French librarian at my old university, despite his insistence on labelling paperback books ‘INFÉRIEUR’. / • The last of the flannelette pyjama tops I had acquired in America finally gave up the ghost.’ At one level, this feels like an assault on microblogging sites like Facebook and Twitter. However, perhaps it should be taken at face value. The ephemera of our lives is priceless.
The Ninjas is democratic, pluralistic and celebrates the best of us. It feels smart and modern, yet, through a number of superb poems on portraits by Sargent, Manet and Van Dyck, Yeh sees a reassuring continuity of human behaviour – warts and all. Our world might be changing but, for better or for worse, we’re not.