Animal or human, robot or ghost? Quirky narrators intrigue Aingeal Clare
Poetry so unsettling, describing worlds so troubling and lonely, is seldom as funny, clever, and downright charming as Jane Yeh's. The range of protagonists in this second collection could hardly be wider – poems are narrated by androids, posses of ghosts, sullen girls in John Singer Sargent paintings, and worried baby pandas ("I don't want to go and play / With 150 strange pandas in China! Why can't I stay here / and fondle a leafy stalk?"). But these sundry characters share common sorrows and anxieties: all are solitary, suspicious, dignified, and deal a good line in sarcasm and sass.
Between tales of loneliness and paranoia, there are touching and exquisite animal poems, whose obvious sympathy and ready wit deserve comparisons with Marianne Moore. While Moore's Arctic ox is a "ponderoso" "basking in the blizzard", Yeh's is an "ambulatory / moustache". The same admiring and comical attention Moore lavishes on pangolins, jellyfish, ermines and foxes, Yeh gives to foxes, kittens, stags and also jellyfish, who "luckily", she writes, don't "need looks / to mate, just sperm cells": "With a modest spurt / He fertilises a hill / Of egglets left on the undersea sand, / Then drifts off – no big whoop."
The speakers of Yeh's poems make you worry about them: their alienation seems so absolute, but without the tiniest hint of bitterness or self-pity. "As usual, I was desperate to be loved," says one nonchalantly, turning up in a later poem to add, with light-headed optimism, "How sweet / It was to breathe the sausage-scented air, and feel / the throb of the washing machine like a second heart / Keeping me true."
Other lonely protagonists revel in the kind of claustrophobic attention to detail that divides the observational talents of Sherlock Holmes (another of Yeh's characters) from the obsessions of the mentally fragile. In "Breaking News", we learn that "Yesterday, the black cat that sits on the bin next door wasn't sitting on the bin"; "Volatility in German type markets meant that italics were now verboten"; "I was a card-carrying member of a secret organisation devoted to the abolition of velcro".
Secret organisations are an important presence in this collection, justifying the paranoid, worldly observations of its characters. The title poem explains that:
The ninjas are here to help us. They are as ruthless as history
Or defenestration. They are pitiless as a swarm of bees, or evolution.
They know how to throw fire balls and do their own taxes.
They hate litter and small children. They are here to fix us.
These are not the only Orwellian nightmares to shadow our waking hours. There are also "The Robots", under whose rule we will be "snuffed out like vermin" (though they do have endearing qualities, such as a "love of rabbits" and an interest in kung fu). Then there are "The Witches", who, hilariously, "restore bassoons as a front for their larceny". They are genuinely horrifying creations: "When asked, they pose for pictures but with their hands over their faces. // They stand with arms akimbo because their pockets are stuffed with mice and prawns."
Alice Oswald's superlative animal poems are in the tradition of John Clare, DH Lawrence and Ted Hughes, but Yeh's poems come to us from a different tradition entirely – not just Moore, but Elizabeth Bishop, Hitchcock's The Birds, and the lovably violent animals and robots of cartoons. But just as it can be unclear whether her speakers are animal or human, robot or ghost, Yeh's poems make us reconsider the category lines of British and American, as well as human and non-human. The Ninjas is profound, funny and sad, reminding us that humans and androids are lonely and need love, and that attention to detail and kindness to animals can make a better world. This quirky and wise collection has outstanding originality and poise.