Ouyang Yu’s Terminally Poetic

Ouyang Yu, Terminally Poetic (Ginninderra Press 2022)

Every now and then someone on my Twitter feed shares an angry response to a rejection letter from a literary magazine. These responses generally assert that the rejecting editor is too stupid, racist, sexist, transphobic or something of the sort to have recognised the brilliance of the rejected work. In my time as editor of a children’s literary magazine, such responses were rare, but they certainly never made us think we might have been mistaken.

Here’s one editor’s take on such responses:

Much of Ouyang Yu’s Terminally Poetic could be read as making poetry out of that kind of letter. The persona in these poems rails against poets who are famous (Les Murray is singled out a couple of times), against the useless sadness of ancient Chinese poets, against editors who say they want to publish work that will sell, against editors who ask that a submission be accompanied by a stamped self-addressed envelope, against editors who are white or coloured, against the notion of revising poems, against literary prizes, against the dominance of white people in the Australian literary scene, against the intrinsic mediocrity of Australian poetry, against people who don’t pay him enough attention, against himself.

The poems were written over three decades. A couple of them self-identify as written in 2000; one calls for Australia to emulate the 2000 coup in Fiji; one (‘Temporarily Untitled’) starts with a bald account of a murder-suicide by a poet, who a little googling identifies as Chinese poet Gu Cheng in 1993, making it perhaps the earliest poem in the collection. It begins:

the news came that the poet died
he had killed his wife and hang himself on a tree outside the house

on an island not far from auckland
called something i can't remember at all

because it is difficult to pronounce

The offhand disrespect of these lines is all too typical of the book (the unconventional/incorrect ‘hang’ is less so). It may be a sign of youthful harshness, but as the poems are presented in alphabetical order of title – from ‘About poetry’ to ‘Written by one who doesn’t know how to write poetry’ – there’s no telling if there is any mellowing with age.

This is an unpleasant book. It means to be. It’s also an insider’s book. Even though the speaker of the poems positions himself as an outsider, his attention rarely moves out of the world of literature and publishing. It won the Judith Wright Calanthe Award for a Poetry Collection in the 2021 Queensland Literary Awards. I couldn’t find the judges’ comments online, and I’m curious about their choice.

When I blog about poetry collections it’s my practice to single out one poem for a closer look. Here’s one of the few poems in this book that isn’t about the poetry world:

(Maybe this appeals to me because I cherish childhood memories of coming home from a movie and peeing in the yard in the moonlight with my father and brothers while my mother and sisters took turns at the toilet inside.)

The heart of the poem is the moment when the speaker is taken by surprise by the moonlight and the edible-looking streetlights. I know hardly anything about classical Chinese poetry, but I understand that there are many poems about the moon and moonlight, including the one at this link by the great Li Bai. I can’t help but read Ouyang Yu’s poem in the context of that tradition.

But before we get to the moonlight, there’s ‘a long dream of dreaming of toilets’ in ‘the unconscious hours of the night’. It’s not just sleep, but unconsciousness. It’s not just a dream, but a dream of dreaming. He’s deep in the dream, dead to the world as we say. The syntax of what follows is muddled: read literally, the speaker is ‘turned away by closed doors or crowds of pissers’ after he gets up to relieve himself. This captures so well the muddled state of waking from a deep dream, especially perhaps a dream of pissing, the way the dream pulls you back to itself.

In the two middle stanzas, the speaker goes to the real toilet, and he momentarily forgets bodily functions because the moonlight is there. And then there are the streetlights, like juicy oranges, and the stirrings of some unnamed, hunger-like desire. In these stanzas he comes fully awake to the world in the silence of the night.

In Li Bai’s poem the speaker looks down to see the moonlight like frost on the ground, looks up at the moon, looks down again. This poem has a similar movement: the speaker looks down, metaphorically, at his bodily need; looks up at the moonlight and the streetlights; then looks down again, to pee (this poem definitely assumes a male body). Then there’s a moment’s reflection. Li Bai thinks of his homeland, evoking the yearning of nostalgia. In Ouyang Yu’s poem, ‘shiveringly’ refers to the cool of the night, but it also suggests an emotional moment. The final line, banal and bathetic at first glance, is just surprising enough to give the reader pause: what does it mean to wonder about life without toilets? I take it to be an oblique way (a very oblique way) of giving thanks for a tiny moment of appreciation of the beauty of the world, perhaps even of transcendence.

I haven’t read any other of Ouyang Yu’s many books of poetry. I hope they are full of such moments.

I am grateful to Ouyang Yu and Ginninderra Press for my copy of Terminally Poetic.

3 responses to “Ouyang Yu’s Terminally Poetic

  1. Since I discovered him when he won a NSW LitAward for The English Class, I’ve read two other novels by Ouyang Yu: Loose, and Billy Sing. He’s a very interesting writer, with a more sophisticated eye on the migrant sense of alienation than much of what we see on that topic.
    His style was once described as ‘earthy’ somewhere, and it’s a useful word to use to describe the preoccupation with (a-hem) the body. ‘Loose’ was very interesting but it overdid the earthiness for my taste. I learned from that novel that bawdiness is a characteristic of Chinese writing but it’s not a characteristic of my culture and I only put up with it in small doses.
    I believe he was/is well-known and successful in China, and the bitterness and resentment about not having that recognised here and the struggle to get published is a theme in what I’ve read.
    I’m not, as you know, an insider in publishing, but it’s been so long since his last novel, I wonder if this uncompromising attitude, quoted from ‘Loose’ has anything to do with it:
    “Raw, tough, stubborn, unpolished and resistant to any Western attempt to polish it to a bestselling level, to commodify it.”

    Liked by 2 people

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