Cyril Wong reviews The Kingsbury Tales by Ouyang Yu
The Kingsbury Tales
In The Kingsbury Tales, Ouyang Yu has decided that he has written a novel, instead of just a collection of poems. Although there is no overarching, dramatic narrative beyond the physical and emotional transitions the poet makes between Australia, China, and even Singapore, Yu’s latest verse volume is arguably a novel in the Bakhtinian sense. Russian critic Mikhail Bakhtin has made a general point about poems for when they are potentially novelised: “They become…dialogised, permeated with laughter, irony, humour, elements of self-parody and finally…the novel inserts into these other genres an indeterminacy, a certain semantic openendedness, a living contact with unfinished, still-evolving contemporary reality.” Bakhtin has emphasised that a novel is dialogical by being constituted by various autonomous discourses in respect to which the author takes the position of an interlocutor.
This is certainly the case here, in which Yu’s book consists of an imagined, or remembered, smorgasbord of characters held together by the poet’s critical and poetic imagination. If one is searching for narratives in these poems, they can be found in the established, historical ones that intersect across the poet’s diasporic position as a Chinese writer living in Australia (Kingsbury, Victoria, to be exact.) The Kingsbury Tales has irony and humour, but they are subsumed under the long shadow of melancholy (life, Yu writes in the book’s closing poem, is, for an old man, “not worth living / Better never born”.) This melancholy permeates the poems as they struggle to expose the often discomfiting “openendedness” of historical discourses and contemporary multiculturalism (an openendedness that also exists in the definition of genres like the novel form, which Yu unabashedly exploits for his purposes here). Divided into general sections such as Historical Tales, Women’s Tales, Migrants’ Tales, Singapore Tales etc., the poems within them care less about offering an aesthetic thrill than about conveying a sense of jarring displacement or tragedy that stems from the poet or his characters being unable to make sense of the world.
From a poem like “An Aboriginal Tale,” in which the poet parallels the same racism faced by both an Aboriginal person and a Chinese woman, to a poem like “Shanghai Women” about how a Shanghainese woman, who is “living a not very interesting Australian life,” longs to return to China with the ashes of her dead husband, Yu starkly brings to our attention the real life stories and microscopic incidents that go wrongfully unnoticed by larger narratives about society. The poet’s own life is put under scrutiny too. In “The Palm Reader’s Tale,” the palm reader takes the poet’s hand and reads him as a man “not content with doing one thing only” and notes that whatever he does, “there is always something there that tries to frustrate it or him.” Restlessness and frustration are the fuel that drives these poems to form a picture of what John Kinsella has described, in his preface, as “a paranoid zone wrestling with its own exclusion and belonging.” What is excluded are the oppressive ideologues according to which our lives are forcibly aligned, while what belongs in the picture, or Yu’s poetic zone, is the indeterminacy and fragmented nature of dissonant, cultural units that the poet, and other diasporic figures like the poet, are forced to hold together within the conflicted spaces of their own self-identification.
If language is the entryway into a different culture, then it is also how we most evidently manifest our inability to ever assimilate ourselves. In “New Accents,” the character, “C from Canton,” mispronounces the word “English” as “Anguish,” indicating the pain that comes from being thrown into a culture that one often remains paradoxically excluded from. It is a paradox that a poet like Yu is struggling to resolve, and also—hence offering another paradox—not resolve, at the same time. On one hand, the poet aims to re-imagine a new linguistic space for cultural disparities, yet it is a space of more conflict than harmony, more chaos and shit than the shaking of hands. After the poem, “Holding Up The Candle,” where the poet recounts a story in which an officer accidentally writes ju zhou (raise the candle) in a letter to a friend, turning this innocuous phrase into a sentimental call for courage to illuminate dark times, comes the incongruous poem, “Bowel Movements, A Tale.” The opening of bowels is a recurring image throughout the book. In the latter poem, the poet contemplates on how even falling snow is like shit issuing from the sky’s anus.
This is a poetry that is deliberately full of it. The poet makes a convincing case: history is full of stifling delusions of grandeur and hypocrisy—full of shit, and so is culture. It is this shit that we have to deal with whenever we find ourselves in the position of being rudely and unsympathetically marginalised within the context of a new place and language. The idea that the world would be a much better and harmonious place if different races would simply sleep with each other, is a point that Yu humorously, and not un-seriously, makes in the poem “The Mix,” where he writes, “This racial mix, which, in typical Ouyang speak, is the great Fuck.” From shit to plain fucking, the poet ends the book with a section of No Tales (obscenity shifts to a critical discussion of nothingness), in which Yu writes, in “This No Thing, A No Tale,” “This no thing, the notion of a no / In the heart of us…Years in denial, self denial, soul denial…Constituting the smallest part of this nation this notion / The biggest part of this no thing”. The “no” becomes not just the “no” of denial, a repressive denial of the inconsistencies of cultural identities, but also the “no” that signals, within the poems, the emptiness of such discourses that we have to simultaneously accept and deny in order to play our roles in the socio-cultural game of history, as well as stay sane, keeping our heads and souls above the excrement of it all.