Jal Nicholl Reviews Ouyang Yu

23 February 2013

But if, as Michelle Houellebecq has written in his book, Platform, on sex tourism, the entire world will increasingly resemble an international airport, one’s sense in distinguishing between origins and destinations will become ever narrower.

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

Explicit social themes are largely excluded from the introspective lyrics of Self Translation, which is not to claim that they are not there in the background. Like Houellebecq, who, in his poetry, takes a similarly intimate, candid approach, Yu has elsewhere dealt with themes of sexual resentment in the global sexual marketplace. This treatment can be seen in ‘Two White Men’ from the Kingsbury Tales volume:

I don't know why I thought of them
still less do I know why the colour white is so prized

by girls of other colour
and I don't give a damn

even though I know
I won't ever sleep a white girl

Yu, like his speaker here, doesn’t go into explanations. In addition, the poems of Self Translation are, unlike the dramatic monologue just quoted, spoken in the poet’s ‘own’ voice (making, as I have said, the solecisms less easy to accept). To situate these poems on a scale of explicit self-reflexivity, with imagistic description at one end and metaphysical argumentation at the other, they would belong in the middle and slightly to the left, a combination of vivid imagery and lyrical affect.

The most immediate quality of Yu’s poetry, summed in a single word, is candour. Not that there is much guidance by the author to suggest the outline of a biography in linear time; rather, the impression is of a life recalled discontinuously in dream. There are departures and arrivals, women and families who seem to come and go, and memorable details observed in a way that is diffuse but occasionally precise in what it communicates. Such is the case in ‘Winter:’

Every day the fly suns himself
on the window sill of this room

Long dead is he  
but I am still alive

The poignancy of this ‘I’, fitted out with a dead fly’s wings, expresses Yu’s sensibility at its most negative, andprovides one of the finest moments in the volume. But then, in a disarmingly direct ars poetica, we are reminded of ‘negative capability’ as another strength of this poet, one that parrallelshis image making ability. In ‘Poem:’

It is the wind going through
A decaying, inevitably crumbling, temple

is not me

Am not poetry

Self Translation ends with the line from ‘Two Roads:’ You have no choice, you have many choices.

It’s a line that sums up much of the ambiguity masked by simplicity that characterises Yu’s literary enterprise. Like Robert Frost’s traveller, Yu – and his self-translations – are continually faced with diverging paths. The difference, so pronounced in Self Translation, is that he cannot help following both, with all their ramifications, at once.

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Jal Nicholl

About Jal Nicholl

Jal Nicholl has published poems and reviews in various places online and in print. He also writes and has begun to publish short stories in the horror genre. He lives in rural Victoria with his wife and son and two dogs, where he teaches high school English.

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