Trading in Mermaids by Alfred A. Yuson
(Anvil Publishing, Manila, 1993)
Alfred A. Yuson’s poetry collection, Trading in Mermaids, is a cacophony of sound and images: each line builds to form the visceral and sometimes all-encompassing aura of a moment important enough to remember. The poems take the reader through different countries and cultures and zero in on images both specific and surreal. Where Yuson is speaking of the “inaudible obscenities” in a foreign land, the graves of Chopin and Jim Morrison or Larry Bird’s trip to Spain, the world becomes something of a playground. The speakers in these poems are not lost nor are they found: They are living, living, living.
Yuson’s work is quiet and will sneak up on you. The lines are controlled, and the music is tuned to a precise pitch, one that is low and quiet. Yuson’s poetry is clever and as swift as the blink of the eye. These quiet poems will sneak up on you so that they are over as quickly as they begin. Nothing’s better than leaving the reader both satisfied and wanting more, and this is the calling of the mermaids in this collection.
These poems travel the world and bring along a rare universality. Yuson writes in “Knife in the Adriatic”:
Slept part of the night in Yugoslavia.
Rose at dead of four a.m. local time
to rousing breeze from black Adriatic.
Swig of Paddy’s Irish bought in a quick
stopover at Dubai –distance repeating
snapshots of passage in the dream.
Rested now, homing in to welcome
of a foreign dawn. Another swig. Gut
adapts sooner than the flick of fool
and ancient rendezvous. Hotel room’s lamp’s
a ghost driven back by moves in time,
old loves padding out into the balcony.
There it is cold in a version of February
looking blindly down upon the conifers
and hearing the hiss of sea beyond.
Pushed back by Italy’s winds. Pee and pull
the metal chain, drown the quiet with shock
of toilet roar. More and more it’s alien
and familiar. Now seek intimacy out the door
past the hall down the flights across empty
lobby and sliding glass into vast dark world
of different air. New and renewed, lost
in shadowy stumble to heedless water.
It is there. Faint light approaches the surf.
Knife weighed in the palm of distant arrival.
Blade opened and thrust into amity of spirits.
In an hour, gulls and the kindness of sunrise.
Here, the speaker could be anyone, of any nationality, and of any gender or socioeconomic class. Movement is key to this poem: the verbs are imperative and push the reader from tightly controlled line to tightly controlled line. The word play of “home in to welcome / of a foreign dawn” plays with the idea of home and expands it beyond the nest of one place. Here, Yuson welcomes “ancient rendezvous,” and his poems become the “faint light” that “approaches the surf.”
The language in this book of poems is the real gold star: this a place where even “the curses are musical.” The people in these poems are seemingly always on the move, between continents and countries, and yet there is not the usual yearning or nostalgia for home. Instead, the poems show a cultural exchange that is as subtle as it is beautiful articulated throughout the course of the poems. It is both brave and rare for a poet to proclaim that the speakers in their poems “feel so much / safer as an alien, dumb to the invocation / of intimacy,” and yet, the effect is one that asks the reader and the world to step outside of their comfort zones and explore. No matter where the speakers are or the country these poems are set in, there is magic happening. In Yuson’s poems, “the bootleg album of memory” is playing sweetly as Yuson takes us around the world.
Lisa Bower is originally from Kingston, NY, spent six years falling in love with the South in Roanoke, Virginia, and recently moved to New Orleans (it's everything you've heard and more). She can't get enough of Patricia Smith's poetry collection, Blood Dazzler and Lupe Fiasco's take on hip hop. She works from home as a freelance writer and tutor and is cultivating a caffeine addiction.