A review of New and Selected Poems by Ouyang Yu

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

New and Selected Poems
by Ouyang Yu
Salt Publishing
2004, ISBN 1 876857 35 8, aud$30, Paperback

Ouyang Yu is a poet of “multiple identities.” His work seems to operate in dual timezones, a kind of multidimension where love and hate occurs simultaneously. Behind life is impending death, and beauty is always underscored by a creeping ugliness. His latest collection, New and Selected Poems, brings together previously unpublished pieces with, as the title suggests, a selection of work from his well received books, Songs of the Last Chinese Poet, Two Eyes, Two Tongues and Rain-Coloured Eyes, Foreign Matter, and the collectively unpublished Terminally Poetic. For those unfamiliar with Yu’s work, this grouping makes for an interesting overview, combining his most playful and confronting pieces, with the more gentle, and light-handed ones that seem to charactise the earlier books. The uncollected poems are, by and large, more interesting than powerful, experimenting with form and the notion of poetic and cultural identity. There is a poem’s fairly defensive resume, a lonely conversation with a computer, and a number of angry (Ouyang Yu’s trademark) poem’s to the most unwelcoming of Australian’s non-immigrants. In these, the reader is forced to confront prejudice from the perspective of an onlooker, something which should be familiar to a large proportion of the population. Like all of Ouyang Yu’s work, the hatred is two-sided, and victim is also voyeur, and therefore participant:

you wondered about the potential of australian hatred
as you walked out of the court into the guilty october sky (“A Journal Entry, 15 October 2001)

Although there is still much anger in the poems from Songs of the Last Chinese Poet it isn’t surprising that these are much more inward looking, more traditional, and less full of the vernacular than the Uncollected Poems or Terminally Poetic. The reader identifies with the pain and longing of the poet as he faces himself, his life, his disappointments, and his ever present mortality. It isn’t always easy reading, but even while at its most ugly, there is often beauty:

meanwhile i saw my face transformed into
a dream-like landscape of dark brown mountains (“18”)

These poems are impregnated with the longing of exile, but it isn’t homesickness. It’s more a nostalgia, for something that never was, except in the imagination. The imagery is dreamlike, the timeframe one which is neither past nor present. The poet is stuck between a China that never existed (but is nevertheless longed for), and an Australia that continues to disappoint:

i am a totally different space
posited as it were between and above
human divisions and essentials (46)

These are exquisite poems, which invite the reader inside the poet’s heart, to join in the longing and add one’s own, forming something yet unique for each reader. Similiarly, the poems from Two Eyes, Two Tongues and Rain-coloured Eyes are lightly but richly crafted, and nicely selected. As with the poems from Songs of the Last Chinese Poets, these deal almost always with duality, with exile and with the resulting homelessness. In “Beautiful Death” we takes a god’s eye perspective of our brief, almost non-existent lives, and expanding outward, the brief life of seasons, the earth’s features, and even the life cycle of stars. Again, in the depths of its ugliness, with ant infested animal carcasses, and polluted skys, there is still ravishing beauty:

the decaying animal carcass is swarming with thousands of ants
the felled forest has milky liquid running all over the place
sometimes under a stinking cancer sky
there wafts in the fragrance of the setting sun

the death of nature is the most beautiful (“Beautiful Death”)

In these poems beauty is fleeting, serendipitous, but everywhere, spotted in a falling autumn leave, in the momentary glance of moonlight on snow, in a fallen star (unnoticed by anyone else), or the click of a girl’s high heel on the pavement. These are among the strongest poems in the book, and bear multiple readings, as the delicate detail of the poems become more obvious.

There are only a small selection of poems from the recently published Foreign Matter and the unpublished Terminally Poetic and these are much more prosaic: playful, funny, still confronting, but perhaps less rich than the earlier poems. They take on the critic, the career counsellor, the “Aussie,” but interestingly also create a kind of stereotypical “them and us” which is, deliberately I think, as limited in its conception of what constitutes an Australian character as the Australian prejudice is to the recent migrant. The Terminally Poetic section is, above all, light, humorous, and playful, and includes many self-referential works such as the art of writing a bad poem: “one that is so bad/that you feel this snot that i’ve just got out of my nostril with/the tip of my index finger.” (“can you write a bad poem”). Other poems are about what a “true” Australian is, a purely tongue-in-cheek interview with a fictional poet, and the poem which this part of the collection takes its name from: “Terminally Poetic” which is full of puns: “the upshot of it all is/i’ve arrived at this poetic terminal.”

Although the final poems in New and Selected Poems don’t pack the poetic punch that the earlier ones do, they do add some lighthearted (though not without ironic meaning) fun to what would otherwise be a fairly intense experience. Ouyang Yu isn’t afraid to laugh at himself, but when he is in full swing, his work can leave the reader breathless, and hungry for more. Despite (and perhaps at times, because of) the anger and rejection, Ouyang Yu’s voice has become a quintessentially Australian voice. We are almost all migrants, and most people have felt the kind of self and societal alienation that many of these poems touch on. This deep seated irony is obvious enough to add power even to those poems that anchor themselves in silliness. This collection is a good overview; and a place to begin exploring an Australian voice which is a very long cry from the Bush.

For more information visit Ouyang Yu’s web site at www.ouyangyu.com.au.