Multicultural sleep

A review of 'Fainting with Freedom' by Ouyang Yu

Fainting with Freedom

Fainting with Freedom

Ouyang Yu

Five Islands Press 2015, 96 pages, $25, ISBN 978-0734050250

Insouciance may be an undervalued poetic quality. In this latest collection by the Chinese Australian poet, novelist, editor, and translator Ouyang Yu, the attitude of insouciance is also a cultural strategy. It reflects Yu’s own movements as a writer and citizen, that is, situated “in Oz or China / Or both.”[1]

In different tones Yu has been dealing with such cultural tension since his first collection of poems in English, Moon over Melbourne. Those early poems are volatile, with dominant and vulnerable notes of anger, bitterness, and elation:

moon over melbourne you bloody australian moon
you hang on you alright you no worries mate
you make me sick home sick for sure

you put every body to a multicultural sleep
who knows not what is meant by
one dancing with oneself and one’s shadow under you

so contented with sharing the feeling
of planting proudly the rag of a flag
among your rocks

never mind their colonising instinct
for they lose you as soon as they touch you
tonight you belong to me[2]

Here, Yu savagely satirizes the myopic perception of an “australian moon”: a metaphor of the sleepily “contented” and “proud” condition of the colonial nation. The moon, of course, belongs to nobody, just as the “colonising” culture is merely a rag among rocks. While Yu goes on to address views of Australia in later work, he shifts from the antagonism of “moon over melbourne” to focus increasingly on “the one dancing with oneself and one’s shadow.” As his poetic oeuvre has grown, its voice has developed a more studied casualness, regarding the condition of the author and his communities from a dedicated position of bemusement. In “Listening to the Lebanese Taxi-driver,” published as part of a sequence by Jacket in 2006, Yu shares his voice with another migrant subject, such that their dialogue becomes fluid:

In botany bay
I went to this big-faced man who said: guess
Just one guess
And if you don’t get it
I’ll tell you
I pinned him down to the middle east
Even though he was mildly indian
He agreed
I narrowed him down to Lebanon
Even though his accent was a bit hard to define
He agreed again

The poem pursues a kind of verbatim poetics, witnessing voices around the poet whilst narrating his interaction with them. Its attitude is more curious than in “moon over melbourne,” but equally unconcerned with gratifying anybody else’s idea of poetry written in, from, or about Australia. If some of Yu’s earlier writing could be contextualized within a tradition of “migrant poetry” including Ania Walwicz and PiO, his more recent work (and theirs) establishes a new position — one that is confidently both within and above a poetics informed by citizenship and location. John Kinsella — who launched Fainting with Freedom in Melbourne, and who carries a history of collaboration with Yu as well as commentary on his work — has labelled Yu’s work as “post-multicultural.”[3] In this regard it finds itself in relation to the writing of John Mateer or Lionel Fogarty, Yan Jun or Michael Farrell. Fainting with Freedom is preoccupied with the acts of writing and publishing, and what it is to do these between Australia and China.

While Fainting with Freedom comprises four sections, its prose poems — which run successively across half the first and most of the second section — constitute a passage of their own. Yu handles the form of the prose poem with invigorating spontaneity and automatism, as in “Biography”:

You are your own unwritten biography by someone your shadow lengthens, unlike the clouds that stain the landscape as they shift their unfocus. On an uncertain future date. This makes you wonder if it’s worth your while keeping this scrap bearing these words: Princess Hwy, New Lake Entrance, Government Rd, then turn left into Malin Rd. (35)

A number of these poems might be better described as micro-essays, de-emphasizing voice in favor of reflection and discursive devices: a long footnote (“Softness”), URLs (“Philosophy” and “Self Publishing”), even the author’s email address (“shi and fei”). In these pieces, Yu frequently comments upon hierarchies of production and authorship. In “Paintings,” he observes image-making and how “those who did not make it are now making it more than they could ever have hoped for” (33). In “Self Publishing,” Yu notes, “the rain self publishing again as it did 3000 million years ago, on the page that is my roof” (41). Paradoxically, it’s the raw and unfinished nature of these poems or essays that is their binding poetic. They are consistently open and leaky, creating a processual, porous space:

books are easier to destroy than words, the latter having the quality of being mind borne and, in some hands, can generate astronomical sales only to suffer posthumous extinction. the wait for a book can take longer than a suicide. books were once buried, later seized as a sign to endorse one’s own superiority without realising that behind the books there lie strewn branches that remind one of pulp or sap. the first pig book has yet to be written by the pig herself. same with the first sheep book the first cow book or the first tea book by tea. (31)

In many of these prose texts there is a sense that form and voice might collapse or wash away. It’s a precarious sensation, one in which Yu’s writing constantly points out rhetorical directions and possibilities, moving with the moment of the poem. At one point, in “Philosophy,” Yu asserts that he is “determined to leave unfinished” the poem, and “see if it does not grow by itself.” In the same breath, he invites readers to “unite and trash” the poem (29). It’s as though the poetic space is an organism that will continue to revive or at least morph and struggle on, like a polluted creek.

One way this occurs is through semiotic layering. Yu’s work as a translator has been pioneering for Australian audiences. In the mid-1990s he founded the bilingual Chinese-Australian journal Otherland, which has been followed by projects such as the recent anthology he edited and translated, Breaking New Sky: Contemporary Poetry from China. Translation is a constant presence and influence upon Yu’s poems, and is unsurprisingly a part of his discourse upon literary production in Fainting with Freedom. He explicitly discusses translation in poems such as “Serendipity,” “Softness,” “shi and fei,” and “Round,” occasionally employing Chinese characters. These poems reflect Yu’s method of so-called direct translation, in which he avoids lyrical interpretation of the source language in favor of literal or direct correlation of vocabulary and grammar. He composes English in a comparable way, avoiding linguistic elegance in favor of functional description.

In doing so Yu likes to press the language through itself, calling into comparison Fogarty’s resistant response to English as a colonizing vehicle. Like Fogarty, Yu revels in the momentum of pun and conjugation, as well as sonic play: “many that is manying and bad / That is badded … Feet, personalities that pee till they are peeled” (55). Yu demands that we consider how accent, vernacular, and broken or mixed vocabulary are gifts to Australian English, providing it with new modes of being “efficient.” “Stuff the English then,” Yu writes in “shi and fei,” “not a very efficient language” (57), and so he goes on to bend it to his will. Whereas in earlier poems he was interested in exploring this view through found speech and performative confessionalism, Fainting with Freedom harnesses metaphor and analogy to talk about the condition of language for one moving between Australia and China. This approach is memorably represented in the poem, “Four”:

Boat, oh, boat
Come and assault the sky
Of an incorruptible corruptness, pickled in poetry (62)

It is essential for contemporary poetry in Australia to absorb the multiple versions of English that a postcolonial, migrant-built community with a refugee intake might contain. We are pickled in poetry and are learning to listen for it. Yu takes this up in a barbed poem, “The Boat Project,” which narrates a conversation about effective tactics for a “boat person” (a pejorative epithet for a refugee who travels to Australia by sea, ironically the same way that colonial invasion arrived). This poem yokes Yu’s casual tone to subtle satirical purposes. The poem’s speaker suggests that permanent residence in Australia could be achieved by undertaking a boat journey as a work of performance art:

And install yourself in it
Like part of it
Row it ashore
And try
To catch the attention of coast
Guards
Wear tattered clothes
Don’t bring an interpreter
Bring a camera, a video one

[…]

The high-heeled man
Artist stared at me with his removed lip
Stick and laughed
So much
One of his heels
Came off his
Foot

A good detail, I said
That could be used for the
Benefit of the boat (66–67)

While the high-heeled artist is a good set-up for Yu’s punchline, the real substance of the poem is the extended, staccato voice of the speaker. Its truncated lines mimic the spontaneity of speech — a concept coming together — and the dark humor of the noted “detail.” In this composition the artist or listener is but a platform.

In the opening poem of Fainting with Freedom,Yu asserts: “you are your own alter-ego” (11). All of his writing has relied upon this principle, drawing from his reality and rendering it by turns absurd, surreal, and lyrically analytical. In “Digging,” Yu takes Victoria’s colonial goldfields (well-populated by Chinese) as an emblem of Australia’s mythos of prosperity or the “lucky country.” He asserts his independence from that history, rejecting its racism towards Chinese migrants as well as the notion of fatefully happy assimilation:

After they made good and came home in brocade robes
It is even less likely that I would have bothered coming to any part of Australia
Which is why I didn’t come and my name was never recorded
In any part of that country’s history
Looking at the sign showing the routes to the goldfields
I told me once again that I would not have been bothered
If I had not been bothered in 1851 or subsequently
Digging is a beautiful thing
But not for gold
Not for me (34)

Here, the poem’s insouciant lack of “bother” actually constitutes a firm positing of the self over nation: “Not for me.”

While “The Boat Project” and “Digging” are highlights of the collection, the monotony of Yu’s impassive, first-person voice becomes wearing across this many poems. For the purposes of a book-length collection, the voice could have benefited from some tonal or positional shifts. A sense of shapelessness is unaided by the book’s subtitled sections, which create only a false sense of variety. There are plenty of resonant and innovative images to be found, particularly of place (“a sexy spring full of / green-colored jealousy” [46], or “1 colored bird sucking a pink flock / of flowers” [14]), but the price of insouciance might be a kind of blandness, in which the poet’s alter-ego cloaks image, persona, and line. When this happens the poem fails to grow by itself.

Perhaps it’s a truism to say that Yu’s writing is empowered by the attitude which threatens its energy. I’m willing to follow these dips of quality within his style, since they frequently retrieve something original and surprising, even from shakier poems. It would be a mistake to go looking here for an activist message, as we might do in Kinsella’s and Fogarty’s poetries. The cover of Fainting with Freedom is a photo by Yu himself, of red sap oozing from a spotted eucalypt (gum tree). The image and its title, “Gumblood,” are reminiscent of a line in Mateer’s sequence, “In the Presence,” which addresses the slain Noongar warrior, Yagan: “Even if I stab a bloody gum tree you will not speak.”[4] The idea of flora bleeding — of it having a hidden internal life that resembles our own — is an uneasy image of empathy, as powerful as that of self-publishing rain. Coupled with the book’s title, however, it creates an ironic tension — for what is it to be so free you are unconscious? The poems in Fainting with Freedom emphasize that empathy is not sameness, just as dwelling should not be confused with belonging, nor language with unity. Rather, the “state” to which Yu belongs is the poem itself.


1. Ouyang Yu, Fainting with Freedom (Parkville Vic., Australia: Five Islands Press, 2015), 67.

2. Ouyang Yu, Moon over Melbourne and Other Poems (Melbourne: Papyrus Publishing, 1995), 8. See Australian Poetry Library.

3. John Kinsella, “Multicultural Poetry,” on John Kinsella’s website.

4. John Mateer, The West: Australian Poems 1989–2009 (Fremantle: Fremantle Press, 2010), 97.