Bilingual overview of 'angry Chinese migrant's' work spans over three decades and myriad worlds
By Leonard Ng
Bilingual Love: Poems from 1975 to 2008
This slim, unassuming volume contains much more than it would appear to at first glance. The one hundred and three poems in Bilingual Love are written in English and Chinese, with only one of the poems being a translation of another; all the rest are discrete, individual pieces. As a result, readers who can read only English or Chinese will be able to read only half the book. This choice was deliberately made for aesthetic effect, as explained in the poet's postscript to the collection, titled 'A Self-introduction': Ouyang Yu recounts an experience he had in Denmark, where "they made a mistake in reading poems in Danish that did not match my Chinese or English readings", an error which, nevertheless, had an "intensifying" effect on the audience. This collection deliberately, and fruitfully, expands on that fortuitous "mistake".
The paired Chinese and English poems in Bilingual Love often treat similar themes in counterpoint or offer different, multi-faceted perspectives on the same situation. The overall effect, for a bilingual reader, is fascinating. Neither language is given a place of privilege, and the collection as a whole demonstrates Ouyang's refusal to subject one language to another by means of translation. Rather, it makes a resolute demand for both languages to be treated as equal entities, each deserving to be read in its own right. This aesthetic choice showcases Ouyang's ability to think and write in both English and Chinese. Poetry may be that which is lost in translation, but no compromises are made here, and nothing is lost — unless the reader happens to lack bilingual ability in English and Chinese. (All translations of lines from Chinese poems here are the reviewer's.)
This collection spans the years 1975 to 2008, drawing on the whole of the poet's œuvre. Its three parts correspond to "three periods in the poet's life: youth (in China), middle age (in Australia) and 50-plus (to and from Australia and China)". Love, while ostensibly the unifying theme of the collection, is also treated remarkably loosely, and traditional poems of romantic affection are few and far between. Instead, the poet's thoughts range across sex, language, women, men, age, books, masturbation, marriage, prostitution, divorce, and politics. This book is thus effectively a miniature New and Selected Poems (a 2004 collection by the author), providing a window into the entirety of Ouyang's work.
Part I, mislabelled 'China — 1971-1975' in the table of contents, actually presents poems from 1975 to 1989, and only one poem — the epigraph — actually dates from the 1970s. All the other poems, where dates are given, were written in the post-Cultural Revolution China of the 1980s, when the author was in his mid-to-late 20s and early 30s. This is nevertheless a collection of juvenilia, since Ouyang's publishing history only really begins in Australia in the 1990s. Forty poems are included in this section (counting the epigraph): twenty in Chinese and twenty in English. They set the tone and theme for the rest of this collection.
This first section presents us with a poet finding his voice, and literary experimentation is frequent here. There are flirtations with prose poetry ('Books' and 'This is not a poem'); 'How I long for there to be a woman' is notable for its use of long descriptive lists; and 'Remaining' employs a refrain in its construction. The untitled 1975 epigraph represents the poet's only attempt at writing in the traditional Chinese five-character gushi form, and the early English-language poems are also significantly less competent than they will later become: their diction is often awkward ("Let's always happy and gay / To live for ever in peace!" ['Untitled']), and their syntax is sometimes tortured for the sake of rhyme ("And I shudder to think of thee / That will also a memory be." ['A White Peach Blossom']). Ouyang's strengths lie in free verse rather than in rhyme and form, and most of the remainder of the collection happily demonstrates this eventual realisation.
Thematically speaking, these supposed love poems are not really traditional love poems at all. Rather than professing devotion to a beloved, Ouyang instead valorises other things, such as desire itself. In 'Untitled', he writes: "I envy those girls / Who can be with her… But if I were one of them / I would not have envied them / And so desired her". Elsewhere, he writes that it is music, rather than a woman, that "Is holding my neck / Kissing my lips / Clawing at me" ('Bored'), and that he himself is "married with literature and determined to conceive a child" ('This is not a poem'. Women exist almost in service to the poet's art instead: a "beautiful woman baring her beautifully blooming breasts" is necessary because without her there would be "No poem" ('No Poem').
Two characteristic hallmarks of Ouyang's poetry also begin to make their appearance in these early poems. The first of these is a characteristic cynicism towards romantic love. 'Young woman, young stranger, I love you, I love you', written as early as 1981, explores the stereotypes of young love in its first stanza: "我爱你" ("I love you"), says the speaker to an unknown young woman, "爱你在黑板前， 对我凝睇、忘记了手中的粉笔" ("Love you as you stand before the blackboard, your gaze fixed on me, forgetting the chalk in your hand"). The second stanza, however, reverses this situation entirely, saying, "爱人， 熟悉的爱人， 我恨你， 我恨你 / 恨你钢铁的嘴唇， 恨你陶瓷的眼睛…" ("Lover, familiar lover, I hate you, I hate you / Hate your iron lips, hate your ceramic eyes…"), suggesting that that which is familiar soon becomes hateful to us. This cynicism towards love will be more fully developed in the two later sections of this collection. The second hallmark of Ouyang's poetry is an emphasis on the grotesque. In 'Down the road across the campus', the speaker admires a group of working women walking by, whereupon "One blows her nose to sprinkle all over / my face with cool fine drops of pearl". The women as a group, in fact, are said to "All send forth an overpowering smell of / Sweat sweet enough to / Seduce any man strong" — a decidedly unromantic image. 'Untitled' also describes "an old man", focusing on "His penis, shrunken half inside / Half without skin, as big as a lollipop / And bigger than mine"; the speaker then goes on to imagine the old man's "almost impotent wife" and that "He must have masturbated a lot, lately". This focus on the grotesque recurs throughout Ouyang's work.
Part II, labelled 'Australia, 1991-1998' draws its poems from the beginning of Ouyang's prodigious published œuvre. These poems often demonstrate the characteristic attitudes that gave Ouyang his reputation for being Australia's angry Chinese migrant poet. Twenty-seven poems are included in this section, fourteen in English and thirteen in Chinese. One of the Chinese pieces, '分居', is also a fairly direct translation of the English poem, 'Separation' (or perhaps it is the other way around, though the English version is presented first).
This section begins with the poem 'Here and There', depicting the poet's deeply ambivalent attitude towards his new country, Australia. China might be "behind me like a memory", but Australia is "like a prostitute / luring me to enter her". The Chinese poem it is paired with, 'Exile's Song', also bleakly depicts the speaker "在没有爱情的季节 在澳大利亚" ("in a loveless season in Australia"). The ending of that poem is as desolate as it gets, wailing:
The cynicism about human relationships first noted in Part I finds expression again in poems such as 'Poetry 2': "usually // when a man / gets angry // the woman / knows // it's time / to undress". Grotesqueries also continue to occur even in tender moments, such as in 'Kiss': "你怎么能想像/ 两个嘴都有点儿臭的人 / 会 / 吻到一起来的" ("how could one imagine / that two people, their mouths somewhat smelly / could / kiss each other?"). A new note of bitterness towards women is also sounded in this section. 'Nights at Kings Cross' has its lonely male speaker encountering whores and being "disgusted with the thought of her having cocks of different sizes", "unmoved until he saw one of his own race / who stood out among others with her beautiful face". However, the Asian prostitute is "waiting for big foreigners not the likes of you / who were too small for me in everything / the size of member and money". And all the speaker does is stand on the opposite side of the street from her, staring and staring, a "fucking coward", hoping for her to approach him instead of the other way around. Another poem, 'They Have Married White Men', implicitly seems to cast women who have married outside their own race as race traitors: the woman who is the subject of the speaker's gaze, "dressed exactly like a stripteaser // from an x club" is "looking everywhere and nowhere / except at myself" as she "walked elastically beside her Pinkerton", a "grey-haired man / ten years her senior at least". "Somehow you can never catch their eyes", muses the speaker bitterly; "the most difficult thing, the most shifting".
Under these circumstances, it seems almost inevitable that one of the last poems in this section is 'Separation'. This poem in ten scenes chronicles a married couple "sleeping in separate quilts / for years", until at last "she'd wake to find him sleeping / next dream / and he'd sleep until / the flat was empty/ next morning." 'Story', in Part III, goes on to treat the theme of divorce, continuing the poet's trajectory into another decade of life.
Part III of this collection, labelled 'Australia and China, 1999-2008' contains thirty-six poems, eighteen in English and eighteen in Chinese. In keeping with the notion that a cynic is really an embittered idealist, the cynicism and anger of the previous section now gives way to a kind of sadness, resignation and wry humour, though poems like 'Amsterdam (14/5/04)' continue to resonate with the tone of 'Nights at Kings Cross': Amsterdam is called "Am stir damn", "the fuck city", where the speaker is "basically sick / watching the humanity / engaged in such an active service / at the Red Light Church". But a longing for love also creeps through in poems like 'Thoughts on a Quiet Night', whose speaker, hugging himself in the night, laments that "我永远 / 没法成为 / 我爱的那个人 / 被我紧紧抱在怀里" ("I will forever / have no way to become / the person I love / clasped tightly to my bosom"), and 'I want', which plainly states that "I want to have a woman / to love me/ I want to love / a woman". Reality, unfortunately, is a world where people "不谈心不谈情 / 谈经济" ("speak not of the heart nor of feelings / but of the economy"), as in the poem '40多岁人的爱情语汇' ('Romantic Lexicon after the Age of Forty').
In the absence of a human lover, then, the poet retreats into language. "Why do you like love?", he asks in the poem 'Like, love'. "So much arse / Not much art". 'Sitting before the computer for a long time tonight', which opens Part III, declares that "I am going to make love / on t.v./ with the word // beauty". And later on, in 'from Soul Diary: key words', the speaker again says that "the character i fell in love with and made love to is / 艷", the character for beauty (or, more precisely, sexiness). The speaker deliberately distinguishes between the traditional character, '艷', and its simplified version, '艳', using English to explain and explore the Chinese character's intricacies of construction. 'A Sexual Approach to English in 26 Letters' does something similar by interpreting the letters of the English language as ideographs: the capital letter 'A' is explained as "a sharp-coned bra pointing skyward" and the capital letter 'Z' is "a double-heeled show, for the obsessed". A diaristic, stream-of-consciousness style also appears in poems such as 'To be untitled, for now'; this seems to be part of the poet's stated goal, as presented in his grant application for this collection, "to write poems as he lives them".
In terms of production, this seems to be a rather rushed job by Picaro Press: Part I is mislabelled in the table of contents (and the punctuation and spelling of various poem titles also varies between the table of contents and the actual poems), font sizes occasionally change for no reason, and the Chinese poems veer between simplified and traditional character sets. Most annoying of all, the Chinese poems are completely ignored by the table of contents, so that it becomes necessary to leaf through the book to find any Chinese poem. This seems a great pity, as the Chinese poems are much more than just window-dressing and demand to be taken as seriously as Ouyang's English-language work. However, this remains a collection of poems which will have much to offer readers of English, Chinese, or both.QLRS Vol. 11 No. 4 Oct 2012