Ali Alizadeh Reviews Ouyang Yu

7 September 2004

New and Selected PoemsNew and Selected Poems by Ouyang Yu
Salt Publishing (UK), 2004

´Multiculturalism', when all has been said and (often very little) has been done about it, remains a difficult, even paradoxical, idea. It is an English-language term invented by, and used for the purposes of, the dominant Anglo-Celtic culture; yet it supposedly represents the reality of being from the ´minor' cultures that, at least in Australia, do not have English as a first language.

In other words, in spite of its ´inclusive' and ´pluralist' overtones, multiculturalism is, at least theoretically, a form of alienation. It is meant to represent something without at all belonging to, or even marginally participating in, the languages and the logos of the thing/s that it supposedly signifies.

However, the oddity of a term such as ´multiculturalism' does not reside in its treatment of those who-do-not-look-or-speak-like-us as Others; but in its (supposed) non-xenophobic connotations. In other words, it is understandable, if not rational, that a ´racist' would invent and use particular phrases to describe the ´foreigner'; but it is baffling, if not hypocritical, that those with liberal intentions should also use generalising and oversimplified terms in categorising, and referring to, the Other/s.

As a migrant from a non-English speaking background myself, I am not here arguing for a celebration of the monocultural Anglophilia evoked by Robert Dessaix in his 1991 essay ´Nice Work If You Can Get It' and, more recently, by David Malouf in his Made in England; nor am I being dismissive of the progress made since the dissolution of the White Australia Policy by, among others, SBS and various Multicultural Arts organisations.

What I aim to do here is to locate a space in which a more sophisticated and less one-sided discussion of cultural identities and cultural products can take place; where one can address the shortcomings without being deemed as cynical or ungrateful; and where the intricacies and the richness of the more recent non-Anglo-Celtic Australian writing, such as Chinese-born poet, novelist and translator Ouyang Yu's New and Selected Poems, can be explored and appreciated.

On the surface, some of Yu's poems may strike one as negative, unappreciative and resentful commentaries on the inadequacies of a multicultural Australia. On this level, Yu is blunt in spelling out the extent of his dissatisfaction. In ´The Ungrateful Immigrant', for example, he tells a hypothetical Australian reader:

You think that because I came to and live in Australia
I should be grateful for the rest of my life
But you don't know that I already regret that I've made an
            irreversible mistake

Here, and in many other poems collected in this book, Yu's view of migration to Australia as an ?´irreversible mistake' is supported by his acrid, almost vitriolic, portrayals of Australia's perceived cultural and ideological flaws. In the sixth poem of the 1997 cycle and book of the same name 'Songs of the Last Chinese Poet', for example, he describes Australians as a people who: “easily […] give up their unworthy nationality / easily they lead a hard life / that is nothing but sex and money”.

Yu depicts the same themes &#151 Australians' materialism and sexual ennui &#151 less directly, but more revealingly, in the form of a Q&A with a prostitute in an earlier uncollected poem, ´Interview with Sheila Australia':

What you do?

Fucking whom?

Why Asians?
Cause they've got the money

That's why I fuck'em

No culture? Nothing else?
Well, for their green back I fuck'em

As one-dimensional a caricature of an ´Australian Sheila' as this may be, it brings forth the substance of Yu's disenchantment with, and resentment towards, his new country: racism. However, instead of portraying blatant racism per se and/or speaking out against it, Yu attacks the hypocrisy of those who deny its existence, and exposes the latent xenophobia of the liberal Australians.

For example, in ´Career Counselling to a Student of English', from 2003's award-winning collection Foreign Matter, an apathetic Australian career counsellor tells an unemployed Chinese-Australian academic that there is no need for US-style Affirmative Action in Australia since Australia's national anthem expresses the idea of fairness and therefore, for that reason alone, “we don't have this sort of problem”. Yu's answer to such self-appeasing denial could be found in the aforementioned ´Ungrateful Immigrant':

Why not be honest and say: We don't fucking want you Asians,
            P E R I O D!

Seeing Yu's poems as anti-Australian and angry, however, would be one, limited way of reading this diverse collection. The poems that I have so far quoted are perhaps among this collection's more in-your-face moments; and by choosing to cite them, I am showing only one way in which poets may resist against the dominant myths of a ´harmonious' multicultural society.

However, much more subtle, radical and penetrative methods of undermining the authority of the dominant culture can also be found in Yu's poetry as collected in this volume. In these other poems, instead of throwing punches and hurling insults at ´Australians' &#151 whatever that tag might actually mean &#151 the poet is reflective and philosophical, and seems much more at home discussing the complexities of human identity and investigating his own persona as an Asian-Australian, as well as an artist grappling with the ´big questions', being and mortality.

In the collection's opener, ´An Identity CV', for example, Yu provides an insightful and inquisitive satire of the hybridity of his own identity and, by doing so, deconstructs the meta-narratives of nationality, race and ethnicity. Asked to describe his nationality, he replies: “australian for the last couple of years; chinese for the first 43; unashamed of either; having a bit of problem with both”. In describing his race, he writes: “hard to define at the moment; some sort of as yet unformulated new theory would be needed”.

Yu's refusal to participate in predetermined definitions of identity is most clearly expressed in the poems of Songs of the Last Chinese Poet collected in this volume. These poems, while still containing a good deal of angst and disillusionment, move beyond the poet's misgivings about particular aspects of contemporary Australia by addressing the questions of nationality and belonging on a larger, more universal scale. In poem number 11, for example, he declares with an inspired self-deprecation:

i am a man of multiple identity
born in the year of pigs
left the country in the year of chicken
on a fijian passport that i bought with 30,000 american dollars
first to canada as a british subject
then to the states to marry an american
who turned out to be a polish jew or a jewish pole
after securing a greed i mean green card
i came to australia

This witty revision of national identity gives way to a more solemn expression in poem number 23 of this sequence in which Yu ruminates about the freedom “to be able to detach oneself from any responsibility of nationality”. Further on, in the 2002 collection Two Eyes, Two Tongues and Rain-coloured Eyes, Yu's desire for a detachment from geo-political zones, codes and classifications expands into a metaphysical overcoming of all things earthly and physical, be they the boundaries of countries or the regions of the poet's own body.

I can best describe this latter group of poems as Rimbaud-esque: intensely lyrical in form, mystical with undertones of loss and melancholy. In ´The Wanderer', for example, Yu describes the sensations of walking in “the territory of heat” &#151 which could be seen as either a reference to Australia or an encounter with the Sublime &#151 resulting in “bone marrows [being] turned into fossils before trails of blood burst into flowers”; before the narrator feels himself “fly with wings bound by the universe”. Such a flight enables the poet to step outside of himself; to contemplate his own humanity; and see, in a poem titled ´In A Wakeful Dream':

…my leaf of a boat carrying my ashes
down the big river made from the dust of the universe
swallowed up by the vortex of the century

This poem has the resonance of DH Lawrence's ´The Ship of Death' but, for this reviewer, it also embodies a perceptive, radical and, indeed, wakeful response to the predicaments of being a nationless migrant or a wanderer. It could perhaps be said that, according to Yu, a migrant is separated not only from his/her country of birth but also from the body, and that any attempts at repatriation or assimilation are ultimately futile &#151 almost regardless of whether one is a ´foreign matter' in an apathetic and/or xenophobic country &#151 because the body, the initial host of the soul, has been abandoned by the wandering spirit. As the poet remembers leaving China for the first time in ´Second Drifting', such an experience is nothing short of a metaphorical death:

i remember i died once
when i left china
the sky on my way to an alien country
was strewn with an ashen memory
among the comings and goings of people in the airport
no-one came to my funeral
i sang an elegy in a low voice

It would be tempting to conclude this review of Yu's complex and remarkable New and Selected Poems by saying that his very diverse poems as collected in this volume are all, in one way or the other, ´elegies in low voices'; sung in the aftermath of the loss of his original national and cultural identity; uttered in a foreign language after the loss of his mother-tongue; and spoken in the unpretentious and informal whisper &#151 note the absence of any punctuation or syntactical marks in most of Yu's poems &#151 of a disembodied ´ghost'.

While such a description of Yu's poetry may seem at odds with the louder, more reactionary poems mentioned earlier in this review, and the philosophical or spiritual discourse may seem inconstant with the tirades against Australia, both approaches render multiculturalism useless through being either bicultural (Chinese migrant vs. Australian dominant) or acultural (humanist and/or universalist).

Even though, to this reviewer's disappointment, Yu's startling debut book of poems Moon Over Melbourne and Other Poems (1995) is not represented here, on the basis of the poems collected in this volume alone, it is clear that he is one of the most compelling voices in contemporary writing. In this sense, calling Yu anything other than an ´important' poet &#151 ´Australian', ´Chinese', ´Chinese-Australian', and, particularly, ´multicultural' &#151 would be unnecessary.

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About Ali Alizadeh

Ali Alizadeh is a Melbourne-based author and scholar. His literary interests include Marxist theory, Horror, Continental philosophy and history. Among his favourite authors are Shirley Jackson, Jean-Patrick Manchette, Richard Matheson, Alain Badiou, H.D., and Bertolt Brecht. His books include the collections of poetry Towards the End and Ashes in the Air, the novels The Last Days of Jeanne d’Arc and Transactions, and a work of aesthetic theory, Marx and Art. He is a Senior Lecturer at Monash University, Melbourne.

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