Michael Aiken Reviews Ouyang Yu

4 December 2015

Fainting with Freedom by Ouyang Yu
Five Islands Press, 2015


Ouyang Yu is a prolific writer whose combination of occupations – poet, novelist, translator, academic – gives some context to this book’s obsessive engagement with word, language and meaning. His biographical note mentions that he came to Australia at the age of 35, and there’s a pervasive trope in Fainting with Freedom of a stranger-in-a-strange-land’s curiosity for the materiality of language and its malleability: something akin to what Kerouac once alluded to when he described his relationship to English – a language he didn’t learn until he was eight – as a tool he could very consciously manipulate as necessary for effect and meaning. For Yu, this fascination is not limited to the experiences of a foreigner acculturating to a new socio-linguistic circumstance, but goes much further and deeper (presumably due in part to or concomitant with his work as a translator and teacher), investigating and playing with the complexes that emerge from the interaction back and forth between languages and his own movements across them. What emerges is a burgeoning sense of a meta-culture, not merely a bigger, hybrid, Chinese-Australian context, but a richer, more meaningful bilingual world available to those with the knowledge and awareness to perceive it.

For the rest of us, the contents of Yu’s poems offer tantalising windows into that world, especially in combination with his formal versatility. In form and style his poems are typically full of disruptive, unexpected lines, deploying enjambment, malapropism, skilful grammar (as well as wilful disregard for grammar) in service of profundity, humour, and intellectual interrogation. Moments emerge from Yu’s work as a translator and as a language teacher, and his fascinations capture not only an other’s perception of his second language and culture, but also a revision of his first language, and glimpses into parallels (as well as enormous divergences) between the two. There’s something enormously heartening about reading such a living, adventurous book published in English in Australia that can nonchalantly presume the relevance of a treatise on individual Chinese words or characters, or their relationship with English. Poems like ‘Talking about ’ and ‘Round’, with their matter of fact use and discussion of non-Latin characters, as well as non-European cultural referents, expand the palette of the possible for contemporary Australian poetry.

Perhaps the poem most emblematic of the book as a whole, ‘Round’ in particular wrestles with the inexactitude of translation, the ‘primitiveness’ of English and its inability to capture the nuance of a two-character Chinese word. The opening and closing stanzas summarise much of the story:

One student stood up and said,
“the subtle factor that makes live endurable” is not right
as the word “endurable” is not a correct
translation of the Chinese characters yuanhua

(…)

on his way home, the teacher was defeated again
when he thought of the impossibility of match
making the two languages in this single expression
that describes a person’s unctuousness, like oil or an eel

or that denotes life’s smoothness
in a round manner
as round
as a ball

Ostensibly about translation but produced for an English (only) speaking audience, this poem is as much about the futility of trying to express anything in any language, the flawed nature of language as a system, the unbridgeable difference between the uniqueness of individual aesthetic perception and the conventionality of language.

Elsewhere, at first encounter ‘Serendipity’ (particularly located as it is in a section called ‘Mathematics and Fog’) looks wilfully difficult, like a puzzle of typography as much as one of language:

it’s not that i don’t like it          i actually do     i mean the film that i saw tonight
	it was actually a quite funny word          when i first heard it
i thought it had something to          do with being senile like senile dementia

It proves, however, to be quite a straight narrative about a night out at the cinema, a condensed memoir, meditating on this one word (and film of the same name) to explore the speaker’s relationship with life, work, marriage, friendship, and transnationalism. At its heart is the single brief line, ‘did you see it just for her?’, a question posed by the speaker’s wife that betrays a glimmer of tension in their marriage, a conceit that alters the light cast on every other part of the poem, demonstrating a deftness with narrative detail, just the right amount, that belies a novelist’s feel for drama. Such careful and attentive use of story, particularly in those poems in the book that are so strongly located in modern urban settings, combines with the linguistic play evident throughout the book, to offer a tangible sense of the here and now in which these works were created and exist.

Opening with ‘Manufactured by no one but this/Is a morning that harks back to 1787’, the poem ‘A cloud’ similarly manages to invoke multitudes from small, precise detail (in this case, mention of the year prior to British invasion invokes the Australia of pre-European colonisation and pre-industrialisation, in part as a proxy for pre-pollution). This starts a riff that culminates half way through the poem with: ‘The city that is changing rolling into/a nation that soon disintegrates and fragments/in multiple communities of digital photographs.’ Such striking power to sketch an entire national history from colonial pre-nationhood, through to the contemporary era of multiculturalism and social media, and tell it without dull prosaics, is one of the key powers of this book. Moments like these emerge continuously, seemingly effortlessly. Later in this same poem Yu flexes his talent for Steinian word play and linguistic interrogation, an awareness of the language as a toolbox or machine that can be repurposed through close and careful modification: ‘cloud and rain, cloud into rain/clout encapsulated in the rain’.

At times Yu’s urban lyric pieces recall Lorca with the quiet intensity of their observation, and the modest yet clever use of metaphor and simile. Such pieces also demonstrate an appreciation for one of the fundamental purposes of artistic experimentation: application. Where elsewhere in the book sentiment and content are overtaken by grammatical and linguistic play, in a poem like ‘The evening walk’, Yu’s awareness of the power to disrupt or extenuate meaning by manipulating word order, line breaks and voice, enables the poem to more deeply evoke experience in the reader. Line combinations like ‘the air is strong with horse/shit’ capture brilliantly the slow-seeping disruption of an idyllic rural moment by the dawning awareness at first of something bestial, and then more precisely of just which aspect of the beast is present. The delicate play and balance between humour and earnest quietude in this poem suggests the author is closely familiar with needing time for reflection in order to make art, while still living in the contemporary world. Similarly, ‘I’m feeling sad tonight’ manages to create a simultaneously earnest, deeply felt confessional moment, and a parodic critique of the same:

“I’m feeling sad tonight”
I turn around but see no-one saying that

“I must admit I have not felt this way for quite some time
As night is gathering its dark colours

The earth is taut and loud
With crickets like someone has switched a symphony on

Two died in the same year
Closest to my skin

I’m going somewhere else alone
To celebrate my 50th

Birth day
As he said he would do his 21st

A family of loners
In a rootless

Country 
Loud again

Before death”
My heart lowers its head to listen.

It’s a quite extraordinary poem. The apparently arbitrary form – a blank line after every couplet – seems to contribute little until the final couplet, where two lines separated grammatically by the end of the quotation are brought together. That pairing drives home an intense profundity, the sort of brief, dashed-off moment of deep clarity characteristic of a lone poet like James Wright: “Before death’/My heart lowers its head to listen.” In turn, the use of the long-running quotation as a framing device emphasises the self-mockery of the opening lines, but particularly through that final coupling – half within the quote, half without – the same device also serves to intricately explicate the dichotomy a fearless experimentalist must feel when confronted with a desire to express earnest confession in verse. Yu’s slightly odd word manipulation – the synaesthetic ‘see no-one saying that’, or ‘Birth day’ as two words – recall once more his obsession with language play, but also evoke that ‘family of loners/In a rootless//Country’ and the cross-cultural uprooting (and perhaps attendant isolation) this poet has gone through. The use of ‘rootless’ in particular is strikingly clever, at once a near-cliché in keeping with the running parody of the confessional, but also so evocative of Australia and the strangeness of its vernacular – what does it mean in this particular culture to be alone and ‘rootless’ on a night of celebration? Indeed, to follow that word with the single-word line ‘Country’ approaches the Shakespearian in both bawdiness and skilful wordplay.

This book contains microcosms of alertness to the oddity of language as language, the arbitrary way meaning is distorted or inflected by unfamiliar acts of repetition, the use of phrases grammatically correct but somehow socially bizarre/inept, or the inappropriate use of passive or active voice. The actual subject of many of the poems is books and writing, literature or art as convention, with a particular concern for the non-creative aspects of the creative arts as an industry. In ‘Paintings’ for example, Yu calls out the exclusionary nature of acquired taste in a single line: ‘the eyes have to be trained but the names are more important’.

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