Poet takes both roads
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
From the cover of Ouyang Yu’s