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  • Neo-Surrealism’s Forked Tongue:Reflections on the Dramatic Monologue, Politics, and Community in the Recent Poetry of Will Alexander and John Yau
  • Michael Leong (bio)

Surrealism: a collective affirmation; a strange plurality.

Maurice Blanchot, “Tomorrow at Stake”

At first glance, the most conspicuous similarity between John Yau and Will Alexander, two extremely prolific, experimental, ethnic American poets of the same generation, might be that their writing troubles neat categorization and understanding. Harryette Mullen, for instance, says, “Beyond convenient labels such as ‘African-American surrealist’ or ‘North America’s Aimé Césaire,’ Alexander is difficult to categorize aesthetically as well as ideologically” (417). Dorothy J. Wang notes how the reader of Yau can be “thrown off by the lack of explicit ethnic markers, the absence of an unproblematic autobiographical ‘I’ or a clearly delineated political voice” (162). The same certainly could be said of Alexander. Yau and Alexander insistently undermine autobiographical discourse and refuse to draw on their biographies as authenticating gestures (in the way that, say, Li-Young Lee writes about his father or Pulitzer Prize–winning Natasha Trethewey writes about her mother), which does much to explain their underrecognized status among mainstream audiences: two high-profile anthologies, Jahan Ramazani’s new edition of The Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry (2003) and Rita Dove’s Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Poetry (2011), failed to include them.

As Timothy Yu notes, “Yau’s work remains an uneasy fit with dominant paradigms of reading” (138), in part because his “biography [End Page 501] appears [in his poems] only in fragmentary, distorted, or parodic form” (139). Yau’s “Autobiography in Red and Yellow,” for example, undercuts the reliability of its very title by proclaiming, “I was born in Shanghai” (Borrowed Love Poems 95). Yau, according to his official biographical notes, was born in Lynn, Massachusetts, so the reader expecting any kind of authentic immigrant narrative from this “autobiography” will surely be perplexed or disappointed. In a similar vein, Alexander’s polemically titled “On Anti-Biography” calls biography “a ruse” and deemphasizes the “prosaic locale”—the biographical context—that defines the writer (Compression and Purity 64). For Charles Bernstein, the “other” of the lyric, autobiographical “I” is discourse, and in a 2012 essay he implicitly links Yau and Alexander within a post–1975 and post-Language context by categorizing their writing under the rubric of “sprung lyric,” which “stands between the sentence-driven and discursive drives of the new prose-format poems and the traditional I-centered free verse lyric of personal sincerity or epiphany” (291). Bernstein states that Yau “pioneered a surrealist inflected social lyric” and describes Alexander as writing in “wild forms” and launching “rhapsodic ‘exobiotic’ excursions into the hyper-reality of the cosmos” (292). Investigating neo-surrealism not as a convenient label but as a critical category, one that is more descriptively robust than the general terms “experimental,” “avant-garde,” or even “between language and lyric,” will more directly connect the ways in which both Yau and Alexander draw on a “wild” language to intervene within specifically racialist discourses. “Sprung lyric” is, of course, a play on “sprung rhythm,” an invention of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s. But focusing on another innovation from the Victorian era, the dramatic monologue, can also show how the dramatic “I” can deftly negotiate lyric and discursive drives.

Yau and Alexander employ the dramatic monologue not so much to create an authentic or naturalistic character (situated within a clear “prosaic locale”) but to problematize their own lyric subjectivities and to promote alterity rather than identity; as Yu usefully points out, such strategies differ from Language poetry’s critique of “the metaphysical ‘I’” in that they rely upon a racialized identity “to show that all identities, all selves, are ‘fake’ in some way” (152). [End Page 502] A careful attention to the generic specificity of the dramatic monologue complements and extends Asian Americanist discourse that focuses on Yau’s interest in exploring otherness and alterity as a way of contesting the sincere, autobiographical “I.” For example, Xiaojing Zhou describes Yau’s poetic “I” as “unassimilable and disturbing because of its otherness” (197) and as one that “shift[s] from a fixed identity grounded in...


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pp. 501-533
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