Fainting with Freedom – Ouyang Yu, Five Islands Press, 2015.
Though a playful exploration of the sounds, textures and semantics of English and Chinese languages, this collection hints at a deeper ambiguity with the world and how we make meaning of and in it. While explicit reference to boat people and immigrant Australians occurs in a handful of poems, the reality of uprooted life and performance is present even the most quotidian scenarios.
The poems are grouped in four sections. We read about teeth, fish, dream fragments, Chinese characters in (mis)translation; there are poems that break up the words, encourage the reader to consider not just each short word on a short line (as in ‘20 Yuan’), but also individual letters, such as in ‘N’. But there is a sense that even in the poems that appear to have a looser formal hold, like in ‘Softness’, where the poem begins outside a footnote and continues inside one, the words themselves are not so loose.
The occasional graveness of subject matter is buried beneath puns and word play and poems that consider dating game shows, Kate Beckinsale, goldfields and emperors. Most enjoyable about this collection is the way it often borrows the language of profundity only to almost immediately cut it down at the knees. It’s poetry that is wry, curly, tonal and suspicious of platitudes.
It’s difficult to imagine Anne Boyer not writing. There are two poems in the third section of Garments Against Women called ‘Not Writing’ and ‘What is “Not Writing”?’ that dig out material difficulties of writing while also having to pay the rent, live, etc. But it remains difficult to imagine Boyer not writing.
The poems in this collection are too vast and also intricate to capture in mere descriptions, but reading each one is like tearing a new pathway through the heart. It hurts at first to have your heart torn, but when each new line heals it feels much better, and then it is impossible to stop reading. ‘I live in the innocent question’, she writes. ‘Subjectivity will be compulsive.’ Then, later, ‘I’m okay with subjectivity. It’s silky wovens that mess me up.’
While there are women and animals and old and sometimes dead poets throughout, the poems on sewing (‘Sewing’ being but one poem) think about women’s work, stitches, garment workers, hours of labour, the women and children’s lives that go into making the stitches and the garments, and like many of Boyer’s previous works, the reader finds herself privy to a glimpse of what a literature against literature could be. This is a book that must be read by everyone, to put it crudely. ‘My favourite arts are the ones that can move your body or make a new world.’ The ferocity with which Boyer leaves her mark on you is only identifiable in certain small moments, though the ferocity is never not there. ‘I will leave no memoir, just a bitch’s Maldovor.’
Petite Manifesto – Don Mee Choi, Vagabond Press, 2014.
Poetry is many things, depending on the poet. It is, in the case of this book, an act of decolonisation. But can a manifesto also be a poem?
The poems in this collection, part of the decibels series edited by Pam Brown, splice in lines from Gulliver’s Travels, Gertrude Stein, mortgage-correspondence, Korean short stories and papers on race and gender in South Korea. During an interview in 2012 with Lantern Review the author describes how, being an American with Korean and English in her head, ‘that funny voice inside me always butchered the English.’ We need more poetry that butchers English, but Petite Manifesto does this butchering with sensitivity to the messiness of language. The prose-ish lines interact with the quoted sources. In ‘Yellow Translation’, the first stanza from Gulliver’s Travels in which beggars are observed, lice, ‘Limbs of these Vermin’, nausea. The second stanza (‘What spectacle does an Asian eye behold, you ask? Enormous noses. RITZ crackers are impressive too, their enormous holes.’)
Holes, too, returning frequently throughout, from an undesirable translation from English-language editors to the holes made in the lands and bodies in Korea by US bombs. Everyday speech, alongside academic research and translated fiction, takes on new meanings. But recurring sonic/aural experiences (betty=butter=batter, or Freud/Frau Frau/fraud) are dotted throughout, while lines like ‘Let me put an end to grammar of obedience and colonialism with fetal ontology—that was my intention, eggbition. My tongue is forever attached to nipples’ dare us as readers to find a piece of colony to butcher, or at least think about how poems can do this.
Michael Farrell is most often described as an experimental poet, which is not necessarily wrong, but the word experimental doesn’t quite capture the tight formal nature of his poems, even if they require multiple readings before they reveal themselves as such. And even when one can’t discern the exact formal constraint of a particular poem, this sense of ambiguity is the poem working its ‘poemness’ (something to be embraced, not puzzled over with hostility). ‘I think the swan left a torn Coke can in the croc’, a line from the poem ‘Motherlogue’, is interesting beyond content – a string of one-syllable words pops out aurally and is like a few staccato bars in an otherwise legato piece of music. The poem ‘Singing’ (‘to understand’) could almost be an instruction panel on how to read a Farrell poem – or how to experience one, at least. Farrell’s poems are sometimes sparse, sometimes voluptuous, often of the bush if not leaning in the cage direction of the bush. Poems can be fun, funny and technically impressive at the same time.
The excess so enjoyably secreting from the poems in this book seems to be a deliberate, buoyant critique of US culture and western capitalism. ‘Zoology’ observes the rage of male apes, a dissatisfying wife, consumption of morbid news. In ‘Pissed off Zombies’, the subheadings (‘Etc.’, ‘Demons, after all.’) break up stanzas of mildly varying length, but are given the same text treatment as the poem’s title so that it could also be a series of short, fat, individual blocks of text. The poems examine themselves, tease a potential of implosion. Dinh is a master of the line. As the reader zooms out, they may find the obscenity and flamboyance begins to overtake. But, for example, in ‘Double Double Portraits’, each line is given its space. ‘Have you been translated recently?/How long has it been since you’ve been translated?’. Is translation like STI checks? It’s not quite clear by the time you reach the end. Towards the end, the poems begin to pick apart Vietnamese phrases, variations of laughing and then of crying. One gets the sense that Linh Dinh is daring you to take him too seriously, that he’ll always be one step away from any definitive statement you make about his work.
This book trawls dirt, gluttony, desire, migrant labour. To say it is ‘amusing’ doesn’t quite cut it.
Image: Ishan Khosla/Flickr