Raw, fierce and eye-opening
—a Review on Ouyang Yu’s New Poetry Book Flag of Permanent Defeat
When I pick up a poetry book, the very first thing I do is to glance over its contents, randomly choosing the titles that fascinate me, and start to read. This is also what I do with Ouyang’s new poetry book Flag of Permanent Defeat. What follows are some of the titles which catch my eyes at the very beginning of reading:
A Mass of Emotions
Them and Us
日子过得很慢很慢/days drag slowly
As one may have noticed, the poetry titles themselves are revealing enough: here is a poet that refuses to reconcile. His poetry titles meanders between Chinese and English, his poetic style swings between self-creation and self-translation, and his identity blurs as this conflict intensifies and the crisis deteriorates. From Chinese to half English half Chinese, from English to Chinese/English juxtaposition, the changes of language(s) used in poetry titles can be viewed as a manifesto which proudly proclaims that the poet is never conventional and obedient. At the same time, one can deeply sense that the identity of the poet is a typical poet/translator.
Artistic Exploration on Translation in Poetry
Please see this poem:
Broken mountains, remaining waters
Disabled mountains, remnant waters
Setting mountains, leaving waters
Lingering mountains, going waters
Ruined mountains, leftover waters
Can Shan Sheng Shui
Can Shan Sheng Shui
Surviving mountains, surveying waters
When reading this poem, to a large extent, one can hardly distinguish whether it is a poem or a translation. To me, it is more like an exploration on translation rather than common poetry writing. In this poem, “残山剩水” is rendered into six different English versions, which virtually pushes the original Chinese meaning to its very limit. In my eyes, this is where the artistic vitality lies: the poet needs to be the one who not only tries to expound all existing meanings available, but also endeavors to create new meanings. This is also where the avant-garde spirit of poetry lies. This poem is especially relevant to translators as well, because we always try to locate an exact meaning of a word in different contexts.
Avant-garde Experiment on Poetic Themes
This poem also stands out in terms of theme rebellion. Following literary tradition, most of the Chinese poets, especially contemporary Chinese poets, tend to ling on to the theme of “beauty” in poetry writing. Everything that is associated with beauty can be included into poetry, while anything that is otherwise is ruthlessly excluded. This long-held artificial misconception of artistic value is loathed by many artists, but few take concrete actions. Ouyang Yu is one of them who dare to bring changes to Chinese poetry writing. Apart from the above-mentioned “残山剩水” poem, we can find more in FPD, some of which are even more aggressive and ground-breaking. Here is an example:
I’ve written a long sequence about you 屄
Searching for you changing you playing you flicking you etc
The fact is they don’t even include you in their dictionaries
Despite the fact that every Chinese woman has got it
And every or nearly every Chinese at some time in their life
Has uttered you in B or b
It’s your turn now
As far as we know, poets, Chinese poets in particular, are often shy away from anything related to reproductive organs, let alone dedicating an entire poem to the taboo. In this regard, Ouyang Yu sets himself apart. He once claims that as long as there is still such a thing called forbidden zone, creation will always be an empty word, to which I agree 100%. We believe, poetry in essence should be experimental and avant-garde, and this is exactly where the life of poetry comes from. Without the such spirit, poetry has lost much of its allure.
Intellectual Challenge for Poetry Readers
For an ordinary poetry reader, he/she probably expects to pick up a reader-friendly poem. However, this is unlikely to happen in Ouyang’s poetry collection. For most of the time, one needs to keep focused or even wrack out one’s brains in order to keep pace with the thoughts and ideas in his poems. Here is an example:
Tong is henyouyisi
Tong is通is through
Tong would be tongue but for the ue
Tong is 痛is pain
The world has many tongues but little Tong
The world has many ears but little Tong
The world has many words but a lot of Tong or T痛ong
The world has many roads that are ideologically not Tong
Tong is very physical
Tong is tough
Tong is hard to reach at a heart or mind level
Tong, made impossible at the Creation
As we can see, being bilingual is almost a precondition for Ouyang’s poetry readers, because poems like the above are all Greek to monolingual readers. In common sense, readers choose their poems, but Ouyang’s poetry is different, sometimes his poems choose their readers. Generally speaking, reading poetry is a sort of past of time and easy pleasure, but occasionally, poetry reading can also be intellectually challenging. Most of Ouyang’s poems fall into the latter category, which requires intelligent and diligent readers not pure pleasure seekers. Taking this poem for example, the reader will be thrown into bewilderment if he/she does not know Chinese or English.
Black Humor and Cold Joke
Apart from intellectual challenge, we also believe that spiritual joy and entertainment derived from poetry is one of its most essential functions. This basic characteristic also accounts for the love of poetry by a wide array of people. In this regard, Ouyang’s poetry is no exception. Please see the poem below.
他还把London and China一书书名译成
For a person who roughly understands Chinese and English, this poem is rather reader-friendly, and we believe the primary purpose of this poem is to entertain. However, when examined more closely, the poem reveals a little more. To us, it is like a mini-history of translation, through which we can get a glimpse of its development. Reading a poem like this is really a shock as well as an eye-opener for us readers: we take it for granted that “and” should be translated as “和” in Chinese. Who would ever imagine that only about a century ago, it was indeed translated as “安得”？This is also one of the great benefits brought by poems: poetry is a truly encyclopedia which concerns everything in the world.
Love-making Between Chinese and English
One of the major characteristics of this poetry book is the author’s creative mingle of Chinese and English. In our eyes, Ouyang is no longer satisfied with the traditional monolingual poetry writing. He is always trying new things, and mixing Chinese with English is one of them. Please see the following poem.
Them and Us
我们自擂，他们自吹（blowing one’s own trumpet）
我们活口，他们养家（raise a family）
我们大同，他们小异（more of the same）
我们说爱，他们谈情（talk about love）
我们地设，他们天造（make in heaven）
我们咬牙，他们切齿（gnash one’s teeth）
我们扬镳，他们分道（parting ways with）
我们人山，他们人海（a sea of people）
我们火热，他们水深（in deep waters）
我们共济，他们同舟（in the same boat）
我们忍气，他们吞声（swallowing an insult）
我们养晦，他们韬光（hiding the light）
我们铜墙，他们铁壁（bastion of iron）
As a translator-poet, writing poems like the above one, we believe, is his impulse. And as a translator-reader, reading poems like the above one is a rather unique experience. We are not only reading for fun, but also for learning. But for an experienced translator-poet, no other poet would ever imagine writing a poem like this one. However, we believe it is a rather fine discussion of translation techniques through the channel of poem. This also could be viewed as a new exploration on the function of poetry. In traditional views, poetry reading is mainly regarded as a type of literary learning or artistic appreciation. However, in Ouyang’s eyes, poems can be genuine transformers which could be used for any purpose or function. And this is for a long time his motto for poetry writing, just as he puts it: “if forbidden zone still exists in literary field, creation will be an empty word”. We cannot agree more with this point, the vitality of poetry, or we can say, of all human endeavour, lies in its boundless exploration. If we bound ourselves with forbidden zones, we are restricted by building fences around our thoughts and ideas. Pathetic. We call this type of poems as love-making between Chinese and English, because from between the lines one can inevitably get a strong sense of playfulness in the poem. The poet also admits that he actually plays, to a large extent as a child does, between Chinese and English. Or in his words, “trying to make love with both Chinese and English”. After reading this poem, we find that Chinese and English here not only refers to two languages, but also two distinctive cultures.
This is Ouyang Yu and his poetry. They could be anything except being ordinary and mediocre. Flag of Permanent Defeat is, as a matter of fact, Flag of Permanent Victory. A Poet can be destroyed but never defeated. Ouyang Yu is such a poet. In his heroic poetic journey, nothing has ever conquered his independence and uniqueness. His poems are always raw, fresh, fierce and strong. In our eyes, they were, are and continue to be dry stuff, hard to digest, but good for health, spiritual health. We should be thankful for meeting him and his poetry. Good news is: he is still alive, and writing.
By Wang Rui
January 9, 2020