Fainting with Freedom by Ouyang Yu Five Islands Press 2015
In one of its multiple strands, Ouyang Yu’s Fainting with Freedom explores how his adopted language can never be the full carrier of his double self. Nor can his original language bear the weight of his twofold sensibility. In putting his different languages into use within the space of individual poems, he rejects the figure of the migrant—the double self—as linguistically and culturally deprived. Thus, in the self-annihilating choice between nostalgia and assimilation, where language divides rather than connects, there lies the more productive path of linguistic and cultural cross-fertilization. The amusing follies, linguistic games, and disquieting existentialisms of Fainting with Freedom reinforce Yu’s indifference to such insistencies. They also point to the multifarious complexity from which the double-voiced speaker of many of these poems must negotiate even quotidian realities.
Divided into four sections, the collection contains both prose and free verse poems of ironic existential melancholy and absurdist metaphysical despair. The sections give a semblance of aesthetic and rational order in the otherwise poetically diverse gathering. The most experimental are the prose poems in the second section, Leaf or Fallen Bark, which is also the longest at 27 poems, as well as the prose poems in the first section and elsewhere in the collection. The most surrealist section is also the last, For Entertainment Purposes, with 10 poems. The first section, Mathematics & Fog, contains 13 poems, whilst the third, Half or Complete, offers 11 poems. In all, there are 61 poems.
The experimental is important in Fainting with Freedom whose poems knowingly gesture to twentieth and twenty-first century experimentations in poetry. The disquieting line breaks of the free verse poems are an invitation to enter the game of poetry anew from the double, if not multiple, perspective of the speaker. At the same time, the rhetorical assemblage of the prose poems invites deliberations on contemporary realities. Whether in prose or free verse, the poems engage in absurdist interrogations and intellectual game playing. They represent ways of listening, hearing, and observing. They are open and conjectural. English and Chinese dovetail in unexpected ways. Translation becomes existential challenge.
The opening poem, “50”, in the first section, Mathematics & Fog, is an ingenious poetic object of doubleness: “you are your own alter-ego”. The speaker might be addressing himself or someone else. The poem can be read as an elaboration on the speaker’s—or someone’s—disappointments, but ultimately concerns language’s capacity to accommodate doubleness. In a 2008 essay¹, Yu elaborates on the different meanings of “alter-ego” in Chinese and English. The Chinese, “zhiji (知己)”, means “know self”. Unlike English, where “alter-ego” refers to a second self, the Chinese refers to “a different self that knows this self”. However, Yu clarifies that Chinese also possesses “know-heart”, which is really the same as “know self”, but know-heart (zhixin) [知心 ] is more intimate. Even as “50” traffics in the contrasting meanings of alter-ego and know-heart, “the distance between a / know and a heart is a hyphen” and “often, it is this hyphen that cuts you apart”. Nevertheless, there is no comfort in alter-ego, which is “the other self, the enemy of the self”. This conjectural poetics underscores the collection as different linguistic and cultural realities bump up against each other.
The double-voiced speaker of these poems runs from ironic to absurdist. Even as they spiral in all directions at once, his cross-conversations can be concentrated. In this, they can sound a melancholic note, which plays against the ironies and absurdities of the individual poems. Yet the melancholy of “I’m feeling sad tonight” requires that we, like the speaker’s other half, listen to the heartbeats between the lines. This entreaty can be taken as a metaphor for the collection, which demands an attentiveness to its sentiments. However, in one of Yu’s multiple moves, such sentiments are both sought for and refused; elaborated and undermined.
In “I’m feeling sad tonight”, the double-voiced speaker articulates his melancholy, not as regret or loss, but as absurdist drama between himself and his other half: “My heart lowers its head to listen”. The poem both asserts and mocks its own melancholia: the speaker turns around but sees no one saying, “I’m feeling sad tonight”. In its existential articulation of its melancholy and the burden of its impossibility, the poem almost slips out of grasp, as we realise something beyond loss is not recoverable: “‘I must admit I have not felt this way for quite some time’’.
Like other poems in the collection, it renders its preoccupation with difference, exclusion, and acceptance rather elliptically. Its language is both that of a lyrical unfolding of feeling and its hard-edged denial: “two died in the same year / closest to my skin”. It articulates its heartfelt loneliness even as it shifts the ground of its articulation: “the earth is taut and loud / with crickets like someone has switched a symphony on”. Ultimately, it asserts its loneliness not as the existential despair of the lyric self, the unified self of euphoric vison, but the hybridised self, which re-awakens us to the poem’s elliptical critiques. Yet it is not necessarily clear where the speaker is physically located. It could be anywhere:
I’m going somewhere else alone
To celebrate my 50th
As he said he would do his 21st
A family of loners
In a rootless
The most rhetorically extravagant in Fainting with Freedom are the prose poems in the second section, Leaf or Fallen Bark, which also contains the most poems. We also can add the prose poems that appear elsewhere in the collection. Like their free-verse counterparts, they also scout widely for their themes, including artful meditations on art and knowledge. The poet’s humour—absurdist, ironic, surreal and intellectual—is on display as elsewhere in the collection.
However, where poems elsewhere can be a suggestive and playful reiteration of poetic form, the prose poems draw on the essayistic, the rhetorical, the philosophical, and the metaphysical to pull the prose poem away from the poetic to the analytical. Yet they are more like mini absurdist essays than any rational investigation of their subject. In “Fiction”, the speaker proffers: “What was is no more. Hence fiction. Is it that simple? Fiction is a dream that insists on being written.”
Their openness, their refusal to be categorical, welds them to poetry even as they play with the analytical. They draw from the stream of language as dynamic enactment of the poetic rather than rhetorical movement. They expand from the microcosm of the lyrical into the macrocosm of the analytical and back again. Their expansive image making reasserts the poetic and resists the analytical. They give attention to individual words as poetic necessity. In the brilliantly elaborated “Philosophy”, his humour as playful as elsewhere in the collection, Yu’s speaker makes of a Wikipedia address a poetic reference and turns the search terms for Heidegger’s extramarital affairs into poetic objects of interrogation:
Martin Heidegger had extramarital affairs with two of his girl students. See the
source at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Martin_Heidegger. If it is difficult to
get the source in China where Wikipedia is banned, get it in Australia and do a
keyword search with ‘extramarital’. Mind you, not ‘extramarital’. With a hyphen
like this: ‘extra-marital’. ….
The poem refuses to settle staidly into its own analytic terms. Its refusal of closure gives it an unfinished, offhand quality that recalls Yu’s critique of “that petty bourgeois obsession with perfection²”. In the coda to the poem, the speaker’s invitation to anarchy functions as a mock manifesto-like moment of irreverence for such bourgeois cultural production:
To be polished is to be finished, for a second time. Readers of this poem, unite
and trash it
The collection is especially linguistically intriguing when it engages in verbal games that comment on the authority of language. In poems that playfully engage his dual languages, the double-voiced speaker assimilates English into his linguistic consciousness even as the language seeks to assimilate him into its discourse. He plays linguistic games. He slides one language into another. When he argues in “Directions” that “one language’s logic is often another one’s illogicality”, he figures language as provisional. Nor can there be any cross-cultural communication without “intervening or / interpreting”. In the short-sightedness of English to privilege its own geographic position, it does not even see its own blind spot, where another’s reality leaks into the consciousness of its speakers: “but then, she says, hang on, why don’t they begin with west / these people who call themselves westerners, thus superior”. The poem’s comical filtering of the shortcomings of language suggests the farcical:
go up to the court for i’m not afraid that the sky might fall down
which, in her common sense, would be equivalent to saying: i know
the sky won’t fall in, and, most frustrating of all, it is this highest state
of morality that he would struggle to convey to her: that of being
I-less, for she would have none of that. why, she cries, if i remain
I-less, i would descend to the lowest of the low, not only without the i
but also without the eye, worse, the ai, which, in his most il/logical
language means love
Throughout the speaker seeks ways to allow his Chinese poetic persona to flourish in tandem with his English one. English’s inability to express concepts different to its own in “shi and fei” in the second section invites the witty, “Stuff the English then, not a very efficient language.” In “Serendipity”, in the first section, the double-voiced speaker performs surgery on language itself suturing together different linguistic realities to create an apparently seamless but double signification: a word that points in two directions at once, no longer divided by the hyphen in “50”. The hyphen is subliminally present, but the word holds in creative tension its once separate but now conjoined worlds. In the process, the speaker recalibrates language according to a different logic:
…serendipity … i see some of my people ……. would
……….pronounce it: seyuandipity …. rightly or wrongly…….that’s it
Fainting with Freedom is a multifarious collection that represents ways of attending to difference even as the poems attest to the idiosyncrasies of contemporary life. The double- voiced speaker challenges the reader to reflect on the collection’s ambivalences, inquiries, and deliberations.
¹ Yu, Ouyang. “Against autobiography: Towards a self-fictionalisation.” Kunapipi. (30) (1) 2008. 97-104. Available at http://ro.uow.edu.au/kunapipi/vol30/iss1/9/
² Yu, Ouyang. “Ways of Writing, Reading and Translating Genre-crossing in the 21st Century.” Peril Magazine. Edition 14. Spirit Worlds. September 29, 2012. http://peril.com.au/author/ouyang
– Tina Giannoukos
Tina Giannoukos is a poet, writer, and reviewer. She holds a PhD from the University of Melbourne. She has lived and worked in China. Her latest collection of poetry is Bull Days.
Fainting with Freedom is available from fiveislandspress.com/catalogue/fainting-with-freedom