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Jeffrey Yang is a poet and editor at New Directions Publishing. He received the 2009 PEN/Osterweil Award for his poetry collection, An Aquarium, and will be reading at the Poetry Center on Thursday, February 2.
Jeffrey Yang's An Aquarium makes us of facts, etymologies, and politics from around the globe to create a farily realistic two-dimensional version of the book's namesake. Using an alphabetical list of fish and characters such as Aristotle, Google, and the United States, Yang structures a criticism of the worst parts of human nature on a global scale. In the context of the idea of an aquarium, the metaphor of that policy as an aquarium's acquisition of foreign and endangered species for academic benefit is not lost, and is at its clearest the final poem, "Zooxanthellae," where Yang describes the atomic tests done in Bikin Atoll in the 1940s by the United States, and the subsequent studies done on those exposed to the radiation:
"In the following years, doctors from Brookhaven National Laboratory, run by the U.S. department of energy, carefully documented the 'most ecological radiation study on human beings...'"
Yang also discusses the scientific benefit of these nuclear tests in the field of ecology, with the discovery of a type of algae called zooxanthellae, which has a mutalistic relationship with coral and which Yang juxtaposes with the political relationship of the United States with other cultures.
The idea of a politician as morally repugnant and opposite the mutualists found in nature echoes throughout this collection. There is an entire entry dedicated to Aristotle, ending on the lines:
"For not understanding tide's/motion, Aristotle recognized/the imbecility of reason."
These lines begin the book-long theme of juxtaposing the razor edge of human development and the symbiotic balance often found in the oceans, as well as the trade-off between scientific gains and the sacrifice of beauty and mortality. This juxtaposition is heightened by Yang's repeated homage to the ancients in both Eastern and Western cultures, scattered throughout the poems.