Translating one culture out of another: Kevin Brophy launches ‘Living After Death’ by Ouyang Yu

Living After Death by Ouyang Yu, Melbourne Poets Union 2020 was launched virtually by Kevin Brophy on 10 November 2020

living after deathOuyang Yu’s 12th book is a dream book, a book of dreams, a dream of book, an extended day dream mimicking night dreams and it is language sleepily slipped from its moorings until it floats out somewhere between languages, between cultures and between versions of the self, as dreams can do.

Living After Death is a series of 27 prose poems, written over the past ten years, sometimes in China and sometimes in the suburb of Kingsbury in Melbourne, Australia; and sometimes begun in one country and remembered or completed in the other, and though these divides are a source of the kinds of irritation that can grow pearls, the whole book takes place without any divisions at all for everywhere is located in one mind.

In the 1930s, André Breton, then the leader of the Surrealists, invited Sigmund Freud to contribute to an anthology of dreams. Freud replied to Breton in a note that ‘a mere collection of dreams without the dreamer’s associations, without knowledge of the circumstances in which they occurred, tells me nothing and I can hardly imagine what it can tell anyone.’

For Freud dreams were symptoms of a deeper sickness of neurosis in the human soul, which of course needed his attention. Ouyang’s dreams are more akin to Breton’s idea that the unconscious is its own marvellous and poetic world.

The 27 dreams in Living After Death do, nevertheless, carry with them more than description, more than being a mere record because they do keep interrogating themselves playfully, linguistically, teasingly, dreamily and viscerally.

We are never far from the physical body, from sexuality, from the scents and odors of being alive with these poems. They’re not cerebral or spiritual. Their intelligence and eloquence is worldly, physical, taking place in a here and now of the body, and spoken in a way that brings a real voice into the picture. I like this tone and this program very much, and mainly because it is both humble and humbling. Of course Ouyang’s texts can be outspoken, brash, opinionated, but to be distracted by this is to miss the way the physical world brings him, in his poems, back down to earth. Maybe there is something that is essentially Australian in this, or essentially Chinese, I don’t know.

The focus always remains on language as text, even when the tone is most speech-like. Always, art has taken up new technologies, from ochre ground out of rocks or Sienna burnt from clay, or to the typewriter, the calculator, the algorithm and Artificial Intelligence. Ouyang has the natural curiosity and playfulness of the artist too, and in the production of these prose poems there are the traces of his play with word recognition technology. His method of work includes recording his voice as he moves through his outdoors environment, sometimes doing this in Chinese, sometimes in English, and sometimes with voice recognition set to Chinese mode while he speaks English, sometimes with the English mode switched on while he speaks Chinese. Everything is up for grabs, and all technologies become an excuse for play, in the service of producing texts, reminiscent of William Burroughs or Gertrude Stein, but not at all like them either.

To give you some idea of the bent towards the physical in the poetry and in his psyche, Ouyang has told me that his rationale for using a voice recorder to produce poetry is that the mouth is physically closer to the brain than the fingertips are, and so has a better chance of catching the timbre, the feel, the flow of thoughts in their immediacy, their brief lives, their swiftness. It’s a theory. I don’t know how correct it is. Some biologists say that the human bowel is the body’s second brain, and I wonder what new methods of composition Ouyang might strike upon if he took up this notion seriously.

Coming at English as an outsider, and as a Chinese outsider to Australia, he is capable of the kind of irreverence, deliberate misunderstandings, mishearing, slipped accents and childlike playfulness that can re-dream the iconic passage at the opening of Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

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It was the bust of times, it was the wasp of times, it was the gage of wisdom, it the sage of foolishness, it was the hip hop of belief, it was the beat box of incredulity, it was the treason of Light, it was the lissome of Darkness, it was the sprint of hope, it was the winner of despair, we had evening before us, we had noon before us, we were all going direct to Shaven, we were all going direct the other May—in short, the period was so far like the platonic period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being rescinded, for god or for level, in the super laxative degree of companion lonely.

In the poem titled ‘Comma’ we read,

It’s such an easy thing. Poetry. As easy as breathing. As easy as going out into the sun. As easy as scratching an itchy spot. On your own body ….. Poetry. Fingers put under the nose …. As invisible as breath.

—and of course poetry is not easy, though it should be, and yes it is invisible though it can’t exist without form. These paradoxes work their way through the whole book.

There are questions unresolved, rawness that is difficult to be witness to, and observations that stick powerfully once they’re encountered, and this is to say nothing of the ironies that seem to arise out of strong statements so achingly unsure of themselves. In ‘7.43 pm’ we read,

Doesn’t one win from day to day if he doesn’t die, doesn’t fall ill? He already wins. Why win more than mere living? Mere living from day to day? What is the obsession? Why the obsession? Youth is a forest of mistakes. Old age is a forest of corrections. Two forests, standing side by side. Looking across a barren field of lives landscape. A to-live landscape. Love is nothing but a sob. An orgasmic sob. Absorb? Abhor? Abhsorb? Love is nothing but an abhsorb.

This is gripping poetry, witty poetry, poetry that translates one culture out of another, poetry that is both playful and deadly serious, and always it’s reaching for life without denying death.

 – Kevin Brophy

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brophyKevin Brophy’s latest book is the poetry collection, In This part of the World (MPU Inc). Emeritus Professor at the University of Melbourne, he was poet in residence at the Keesing Studio in Paris, 2019-20. In 2022, Finlay Lloyd Press will be publishing his second collection of short fiction.

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For details on how to buy a copy of This Part of the World go to http://www.melbournepoetsunion.com.au/

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