Poet takes both roads

Self Trans­la­tion

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Michael Far­rell

By Ouyang Yu Tran­sit Lounge, 256pp, $25.95

IN the am­bi­gu­ity of Ouyang Yu’s bilin­gual po­etry vol­ume Self Trans­la­tion we can read not just a cre­olised or trans­formed Chi­nese-Aus­tralian self but two selves: a Chi­nese self on the left page and an Aus­tralian one on the right. Nor are the two selves com­pletely dis­crete. Yu’s po­etry is as cen­tral — and es­sen­tial — as any­one else’s to Aus­tralia, if the con­cept of cen­tral­ity is use­ful. My point is that Yu, who moved to Aus­tralia in 1991, is not just do­ing his own unique thing, but is writ­ing Aus­tralian lyrics that state ‘‘ the death of na­ture is the most beau­ti­ful’’ (from Beau­ti­ful Death) with­out be­ing ob­vi­ous or ob­vi­ously iron­i­cal. He can also be­gin a poem called Christ­mas, 1993 with the line ‘‘ this is the sea­son of death’’.

In Yu’s po­etry the ex­co­ri­a­tion of the na­tion is re­ju­ve­nated; in Song for an Ex­ile in Aus­tralia, he writes, ‘‘ in a love­less sea­son in Aus­tralia’’, ‘‘ in a po­em­less sea­son in Aus­tralia’’ and, in a bril­liant im­age, of ‘‘ the/ wheel­chair of imag­i­na­tion’’. But it’s not all bleak. On a Sunny Noon is a hi­lar­i­ous take on the mi­grant poem: on a sunny noon i was eat­ing a de­li­cious fish head suck­ing its eyes one by one it was

the head of a fish that used to swim

in the mur­ray

Racism is a theme in Yu’s po­etry, one that re­ceives in­no­va­tive treat­ment in My Coun­try, which sym­pa­thises with a ‘‘ filipino woman . . . yelling: back to the philip­pines!’’. Here the go­ing back (from Ja­pan) is pre­sented as the mi­grant’s de­sire. The poem is fur­ther com­pli­cated by its al­lu­sions to Aus­tralian lit­er­ary tropes. The ti­tle re­calls Dorothea Mackel­lar’s poem of the same name, whereas the end­ing: ‘‘ you bas­tard, my coun­try!’’ — aimed at Yu’s na­tive China — re­calls Xavier Her­bert.

There is an oc­ca­sional bleed or fis­sure be­tween the selves of the book, be­tween the Chi­nese po­ems on the left and their English trans­la­tions on the right. In The Dou­ble Man (whose name is ‘‘ aus­tralia china’’ or vice versa), Yu puns on ‘‘ Moth­er­land’’ and ‘‘ Other­land’’ (the lat­ter be­ing the name of the lit­er­ary jour­nal he ed­its). But to make this pun, where ‘‘ Mother’’ loses its M, Yu writes the English word and the let­ter M on the Chi­nese side also.

At Dusk ges­tures to fur­ther mo­bil­ity, with a note that is par­en­thet­i­cal on the Chi­nese side only: that the lines could be read in a dif­fer­ent or­der. The Chi­nese ver­sion of The Train ends with an ex­cla­ma­tion mark but not the English, whereas My Coun­try ends with an ex­cla­ma­tion mark in English but not Chi­nese. And while there is ap­par­ently a Chi­nese equiv­a­lent for Marl­boro in this poem, ‘‘ ex­tra mild’’ is given in English on both sides. Fur­ther, in Zero Dis­tance ‘‘ zero’’ is a word in the English ti­tle and poem, but the nu­meral 0 in the Chi­nese.

Yu also oc­ca­sion­ally uses pho­netic Ro­man ver­sions of Chi­nese words, such as hua for China and ao for Aus­tralia, which are the names of ‘‘ two women’’ in the poem of that name. The ro­man­tic and the sex­ual are present in Self Trans­la­tion but as dis­tinct con­cepts. In Zero Dis­tance, Yu writes ‘‘ Hu­man re­la­tion­ship . . . It’s the stan­dard thick­ness of a con­dom’’, and in No Ti­tle: ‘‘ When the

Self Trans­la­tion

From the cover of Ouyang Yu’s

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