Reviewed: Yanyi, The Year of Blue Water, Yale University Press, 2019
Lately I have been considering the political and personal importance of the emotional record. The compulsion to remain unmoved in the face of cruelty, I think, is a danger that has emerged (or perhaps endured) during this year of unrelenting emergencies. Stoicism has become a habit that is prioritised and encouraged by the nation-state so that it may continue to commit acts of cruelty. In one of Yanyi’s (untitled) poems from his debut collection, The Year of Blue Water, he writes, ‘Maureen McLane tells Rebecca that in a moment of communal emergency, it is easy to lose our selves.’
This can be read alongside Viktor Shklovsky’s essay ‘Art as Technique’, where he observes that ‘Art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony.’ The emotional record, then, is crucial—even if it is only for the writer to express the shape of their emotions to themselves; to say and to remember that they have been moved by cruelty. It is crucial to witness such expression in art. The poet Aria Aber gets at this idea when she relays in her essay ‘On Language as Balm’ that she reads poetry ‘to understand again and again how the language of mass media affects our psyches and destructs our bodies’.
The Year of Blue Water is mostly prose poems. Prose poetry is, deceptively, a difficult form to work within. It is not quite poetry and not quite prose, but still relies on techniques from both fields. There is difficulty in attempting to balance these techniques for precise expression. In my position as an editor and as a peer who reads many poetry drafts, I have asked ‘Why is this a prose poem?’ more often than I have asked ‘Why is this not a prose poem?’
In his foreword to The Year of Blue Water, Carl Phillips echoes this idea: ‘Most prose poems that I encounter 1) seem a default, the easier alternative to having to negotiate the work of lineation and of producing surprising language; and/or 2) seem programmatic in appearance but turn out finally to be without program, which is to say the form, rather than essential, comes across as arbitrary, random.’
It is not enough for the prose poem to be a sort of ‘cheat code’ into emotion and an excuse to indulge in purple prose; it is a form that encourages a writer to use a syntax usually reserved for diary entries. Plain emotional expression with little metaphor—which is to say, most diary entries—works in service of a person’s psychic life first, and literature second.
The prose poems in The Year of Blue Water are essential because they have a specific purpose. ‘They create a diaristic sense to the book overall,’ Phillips notes.
This diaristic sense works in service of Yanyi’s intentions, which he makes immediately clear in two ways. The collection’s epigraph is lifted from a Susan Sontag interview in which she says, ‘Literature needs lots of people.’ And in the first poem, Yanyi writes, ‘I’m working on being alone … It comforts me to write letters: they remind me that there is someone listening on the other end. Likewise, I have received writing that felt made for me. People who are dead want to talk to me. I’m writing; I invite you to my life.’
Most of these poems are one paragraph. These paragraphs are given an entire page each, and are typeset so that the block of text sits in the middle of the page. This single paragraph is surrounded by white space—as if it is an invitational space left open for me to step into. Yanyi also writes with a tone of self-possessed vulnerability. Here is ‘I tell my therapist’ in its entirety:
I tell my therapist that my anxiety made solitude unbearable, and that I was easing back into being alone by writing letters, mailing things. Over the course of one night, the objects in my apartment came alive. They are of or for the people I am writing to. Pictures I took of them; poems that are inspired by their interests. With joy. When I am writing, I am never alone, I say to someone, who says that that is probably right, that is what we need right now. Agnes Martin says to me that I am the source of my own response. The artist is not responsible for the onlooker. It can’t be helped that I have no control of my family. They may leave me; I accept that.
The diaristic sense that Phillips refers to means that metaphor is carefully chosen, as we see in this poem. ‘The objects in my apartment came alive’ is a line that stands out among the plain-speaking, and relays to me the wonder felt by the speaker at the turn of his solitude: a transformation that reminds me of the scene in Cinderella when the Fairy Godmother turns a pumpkin into a carriage. In a podcast interview for On Being, the poet Marie Howe says, ‘To resist metaphor is very difficult because you have to actually endure the thing itself, which hurts us for some reason.’
Here is the difficulty for me with The Year of Blue Water: while beginning to write this review, I knew what was going to happen, and I wanted to resist it the whole way. I still want to resist it now. Someone telling the story of their life is generous—as acts of vulnerability often are—and the consequence of this is that I also feel the need to be vulnerable in return. But vulnerability is difficult. I want to reject Yanyi’s invitation because I do not want to speak of my life. I do not want to endure the thing itself. There’s another poem, ‘Here’s what it’s like’, where Yanyi writes, ‘At least, this is what you know as happiness: the relief of not being seen, of having someone preoccupied with themselves.’ I want the relief of not being seen. I do not want to speak.
I was once very lonely for very long. I held my loneliness like it was a gift from some divine force. I thought that suffering in the cold was a meaningful act of repentance—and for what? For being me. I thought that being driven to scream at a river at night was confirmation that I was unlike everybody else and therefore special. It was not. It was driving out to a river at night to scream.
In ‘For a long time’, Yanyi writes, ‘For a long time, I was attached to she/her as my pronouns, even when I was nonbinary. They didn’t seem as sharp as I wanted it to be. And I like precision.’
I want to find a smarter way to say that The Year of Blue Water is writing that I have received that felt made for me. But how else could I say it? The Year of Blue Water felt made for me.
I had this exact experience, this attachment to she/her and not wanting to leave womanhood behind. I had been a happy cis lesbian from 2013 to 2017. Those were years of grace that allowed me to live safely in my body—why would I ever leave that? This was especially so when the comfort I felt from living as a woman was so hard-won after a childhood of gender dysphoria. But then I discovered binders. Something in me wanted to transform and I could not reject the call.
The rest of ‘For a long time’ reads: ‘Diana tells me that to be trans or nonbinary is not to be a woman but to be of women. That seems a more useful gesture. I never want to disappear unequivocally into masculinity. Womanhood is the country I come from, a home I reach back for to reproduce, recreate, replenish.’
Just as he has received writing that felt made for him, Yanyi, specifically, wants to talk to me. Our identities align: like him, I am a trans Asian person. I am transmasculine. I came out as transmasc sometime in 2018. I am a lesbian. I came out as a lesbian sometime in 2013. I am Filipino. I have always been Filipino. Writing these identities as if they belong to a roll-call feels reductive, not just to myself but to anyone else who may also embody these identities. Calling them identities, even, feels reductive. They do not carry everything. ‘Definitions are not static,’ Yanyi writes. It is ironic to note that stating these shared identities as the reason Yanyi wants to talk to me also feels reductive. But I think about transmasculinity a lot, how there was no word like that available to me when I was a child. Labels don’t exist to make us feel whole; they exist so that we may find another. So that we may be able to speak and to share. So that we may be less lonely.
In 2018, while watching The Mindy Project, then Ocean’s Eleven, I found my new name. Of course I had named myself after a romantic lead. And, of course, I named myself after the character that Frank Ocean also, reportedly, named himself after. It felt important to promise myself I’d tell another transmasculine person this name first before anyone else. For a long time, I thought I would never find a person like that.
I met Hasib in 2019. We discovered that we were both emotional Libra cusps. He is a Libra/Virgo; I am a Libra/Scorpio. We had our golden birthdays in the same year. When we are compared, we are compared—lovingly!—to one another, and how we both welcome desire so openly into our lives. We’re both big flirts. We’re both poets. Small coincidences that feel like a ridiculous instance of fate. Like devoting the same day to listen to Nina Simone without the other knowing about it. Or having the same emotional dilemma on opposite sides of the city. This is the person I wished for long before they came into my life. I don’t believe in fate, but maybe we are little fates.
Right now, I am still negotiating this new life that has come with this new name. I am thinking about lines that the poet Kaveh Akbar wrote: ‘I’m finding problems in areas where I didn’t have areas before. / I’m grateful to be trusted with any of it.’
I am 23 years old. My favourite fruit is the mango. I am bad at skateboarding. I love speeding to Charli XCX in my car. I love going out to dinner with my friends. I love watching people be in love because shame is too easy. I don’t pray very much anymore, but when I do, I fall into the same habit of asking God to make the loneliness more lonely and He refuses. Unfortunately, I am met with more abundance than I understand how to hold.
The Year of Blue Water uses few metaphors and yet the title itself is a metaphor. What could that mean? What is a year of blue water? I’m not sure. But what I do know is that the first word of the collection is ‘you’re’ and the last is ‘abundance’. So, not water as in drowning. Not water as in the river I have since asked for forgiveness. But water as in nourishment, a sense of overflow. Water as in: look at all that we get to experience.
This is a small book. It can be read in about an hour. The true medium of the book is the white space. And Yanyi allows the reader to enter those spaces with their own life.
In ‘You tell me that the old you’, Yanyi states, ‘The revolution is emotional.’ The poem continues, ‘The revolution is that I care about my own safety, that I believe my life is valuable and worth pursuing. As in, I am worth the work of transformations. As in, I do not fear how I will emerge from myself, or how many times.’ •
Danny Silva Soberano is a poet.