A review of Songs of the Last Chinese Poet by Ouyang Yu

This collection, which was short-listed for the 1999 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards for multicultural writings, is not an easy read. Nor will it leave the reader with a warm sense of transcendence. The language is confronting, defensive, and graphic. But taken together, these 97 poems create a persona and theme which will raise interesting questions about identity, personal responsibility, and the nature of prejudice, exile, and the east/west divide.

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

Songs of the Last Chinese Poet
By Ouyang Yu
Wild Peony
ISBN 0 9586526 4 3, Softcover, $14.95aud, 1977
http://www.ouyangyu.com.au/list.asp?id=99

Songs of the Last Chinese Poet is an uncomfortable book of poetry. It sits uncomfortably with the reader who is confronted by poems which accuse and challenge, and creates a persona–the “I” of each poem–who is also uncomfortable with his role, his own skin, in his chosen country and his relationship to the country he has left. Guilt and accusation sit side by side, and self-loathing is as prevalent as the loathing of others. Poetry isn’t always intended to be gentle on the reader though, and confrontation may be an essential component of modern poetry forcing the reader to think through complex concepts in dualistic ways. At its best the poetry presents a picture of a man in mid-life crises, faced with a meaningless future, an obliterated past, and nothing more coherent than disappointment to keep him alive:

home is a strange place
this morning
like every morning
the sun shines through everything
ugly deranged and temporary
the heart is a bird of irony
that longs for things that no longer exist (“16”)

This loneliness and sense of isolation underlies even the most vicious of the poems, and provides the flip side to what might otherwise appear as arrogance. Australia, the land of promised freedom and unlimited opportunity has proved as limited and bigoted as any other nation (but perhaps no more so than any other nation either):

but i’m not happy about what i see here
for example in a workplace
during the tea break
people fall into groups according to their different
nationalities
they buy and read their own newspapers written in their
own languages
only in a brothel do they begin to mix (“11”)

The host country is represented as a poor host, whose inhabitants are only interested in sex and money. However, this stark and very male perspective which also rails against those who work ordinary jobs, against his unloving wife, against lesbians, against ideologues, and those who hate idealism, serves primarily to reflect back on the character of the poet narrator. Through his boredom and self-deprecation he sees hypocrisy in everyone–even the sincere–and feels his own failure as the failure of Australia, the failure of China and the Chinese, and the failure of academia and the poetry establishment en masse. Lifting his head from his morass, he manages to laugh still, punning and playing with words, and creating adept and evocative metaphors which convey the complexity of his layered themes:

sometimes you feel so empty
that instead of finding holes in yourself
you find holes everywhere
australia itself is one big hole
like an enormous beehive
with all the intellectual holes that you want to fill in
westerly southerly easterly northerly
overland upland underland downland wonderland
By stand
meanjin makar mattoid scripsi tirra lirra going down
swinging (“42“)

It is at this point when the stereotype turns and the reader realises that the poet speaker is an artificial construction limited in vision by prejudice and anger; unable to recognise heroism where it occurs, to see beauty where it blooms, or to accept a compliment where it is given:

but even when the flowers are
Blooming/blossoming/opening
I see no heroes anywhere (“66“)

.

The duality of oppressed and oppressor, makes the poetry interesting, and provides a reference which opens a door to questions about language and its power, and how we create both exile and Ithaca within ourselves. It is the struggle between East and West within the author that keeps him alive: They are two sides of the same coin:

love and hate
they are the two legs

if you move one
you have to move the other

they walk the enormous distance
between life and death

if you amputate one
the other is crippled

As with all of Ouyang Yu’s work, amidst the anger and bitter wordplay, there are moments of beauty which are revealed in spite of the poet’s almost wilfulness not to allow anything pretty in this poetry of alienation:

i have laid myself down in the corner of an Australian
suburb
looking up I see the blue sky forever hanging there
without movement without sound
i wonder why I am here
but my sleep is sweet

This collection, which was short-listed for the 1999 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards for multicultural writings, is not an easy read. Nor will it leave the reader with a warm sense of transcendence. The language is confronting, defensive, and graphic. But taken together, these 97 poems create a persona and theme which will raise interesting questions about identity, personal responsibility, and the nature of prejudice, exile, and the east/west divide.

For more information or to purchase a copy visit:

http://www.ouyangyu.com.au/list.asp?id=99

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