review by Tse Hao Guang
Ouyang Yu’s Fainting with Freedom is soap-bubble language. It lives halfway between being and becoming, full of conversational breath, reflective of the mind that created it, bilingual and annoyed, bored and shocked at its own boredom. It asks pointed questions of itself, which this review will attempt to dig into: which is the audience? who is speaking? what’s going on?
Poetry and identity politics seem to live together easily, especially in contemporary work. The poems of Fainting, however, resist this easiness, complicating any readerly attempt to grasp a stable poetic self. Here are lines from ‘50’, echoing both Ashbery’s and Parmigianino’s ‘Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror’:
Whereas in English alter ego means second self, know-heart (知心) suggests the opposite, assumes that a person has a whole heart which is known by another. And so Yu in his opening poem attempts to bring two different conceptions of the self together.
This collision of selfhoods results in linguistic complexity. The pieces in Fainting delight in such difficulty – specifically, awkward syntax and tense, incomplete sentences, seemingly unnecessary repetitions, painfully absent punctuation, indecorous line breaks. This nod to ‘Engrish’, ‘translationese’ and other forms of English as a second language is one obvious way of bringing two kinds of selves – one ‘Western’, the other ‘Eastern’ – together. Beyond that, many poems read like internal conversations, passionately idiosyncratic, where the speaker talks past or over different versions of itself:
On the one hand, difficulty and idiosyncrasy is sometimes mistaken as hostility, where the poet ignores the reader and writes to and for himself only. On the other, it seems Caliban lives within Yu’s speakers, who learn a colonial language in order to engage in its creative abuse. The hostility to the reader is reflective of a history of hostilities between races and cultures, played out here in the realm of language.
Even though readers without knowledge of Chinese languages or culture might miss many of Yu’s references, in other ways Fainting seems receptive to a non-Chinese speaking audience. ‘You only need 人 (man) to make it heaven’, from ‘Talking about 一’, stumbles the bilingual reader with the extra syllable in brackets; elsewhere, italicised, romanised Chinese characters mark them as uneasily integrated into the text (68). In that vexed space where Chineseness is sometimes confidently assumed and sometimes demarcated as foreign to the text, Yu’s speakers curse the Anglophone world they are also irrevocably a part of.
The internal conversations of Fainting, when not about being Chinese in Australia (as in ‘The Boat Project’ or ‘20 Yuan’) or Poetry Itself (‘Self Publishing’, perhaps ‘Volcanoes’), seem to be about a kind of existential boredom. The effect is the opposite of boring. ‘Banality’, instead of employing the usual tactic of elevating the everyday, records shampoo and semen and salted fish to show ‘how close the bin is to my brain’ (19). As in some kinds of contemporary assemblage, trash is turned into art; the banal becomes another creative refuge.
This existentialism, which manifests in recycling the cast-off parts of language, explains why Yu’s poetry is both fascinated with and afraid of ending. ‘I want to disappear into creative / banality’, the speaker in ‘Banality’ says. In ‘Philosophy’, facts about Heidegger and Kierkegaard are declaimed flatly, and the poem is abandoned after these words:
Yu’s poetry uses trash and becomes trash, but is left unfinished so that it may not be finished off, emerging in the tension between existence and process. A stable concept of self, paradoxically, also means the foreclosing of possibilities, is ‘to be finished’.
Possibly the most important aspect of Fainting, however, is Yu’s ability to integrate these somewhat postmodern approaches to identity with the specificity of Chinese language and culture. In ‘A Report on Feicheng Wurao’, Yu describes the popular Chinese dating game show as an arena where cultural values bump up against each other in surprising ways:
The distinction between high and low art, poetry and reality television, is flattened in a perhaps predictable moment. Yet even as these global citizens vie for love, this remains a Chinese show: participants speak Mandarin, the audience is Chinese. The postmodern, although seemingly a culturally neutral phenomenon, can and does have specific strands, each with their own distinct concerns.
Yu’s poetics follows the same principle. The avant-garde or experimental need not be turn-of-the-century Anglo-European modernism or deracinated contemporary post-anything. In ‘Translation, half or complete’, Yu presents several Chinese sayings in literal translation: ‘A mountain and sea of people’, ‘not know death, how know life?’, ‘wind wind fire fire’ (42). Instead of sounding awkward, these phrases become, in context, invested with linguistic allure. Through poetry, they seem to suggest, the space in between cultures can be a fascinating place to be.
For every poem that speaks of bridging the ‘East-West’ divide, there is another that insists such an act is impossible. ‘The Great Chinese Loneliness’, which in this reviewer’s opinion deserves to be the book title, is Yu’s personae at their most cynical. Hong Kong is not Taiwan is not Melbourne, and the Chinese diaspora can only share a sense of loneliness, ‘Of one / Being no one / Else’ (78). Perhaps we need to be more specific when talking about self and culture. ‘Digging’, for example, meditates upon the history of the Chinese in Australia, digging for gold, ‘smoking and whoring by day and night’ (34). It is that history, that chance to situate oneself, that Yu’s personae actually dig for:
Fainting with Freedom explores the potential and limits of language to express the self, but a divided self, just as Yu is divided. This kind of self-expression is suspicious of lyricism and sentimentality. It is also suspicious of selfhood, which opens the poems up to all kinds of experiment and playfulness. Here are poems-in-process which question the self-in-process. Just as the psychologist in the closing poem ‘He said’ gets all the lines, these poems really reveal more about us readers than about the poet. Yu’s personae become our 知心。
Assembled in Singapore with parts from Hong Kong and Malaysia, Tse Hao Guang is the author of chapbook hyperlinkage (2013) and Deeds of Light (2015, both Math Paper Press). He co-edits literary journal OF ZOOS, and UnFree Verse, an anthology of Singapore poetry in received and nonce forms. He serves as the critical essays editor of poetry.sg, a home for Singapore poetry.
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Vol 20 No 1 April 2016
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Kevin Brophy & Enza Gandolfo
Reviews Editor: Linda Weste