Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Tuesday Poem - 'Round' by Ouyang Yu


One student stood up and said,
'the subtle factor that makes live endurable' is not right
as the word 'endurable' is not a correct
translation of the Chinese characters yuanhua

'What do you think?' the teacher asked
Cai, a broad-faced man-boy. 'What words
Would you use: “smooth”, perhaps?'
Chen, the man-boy, with a constant hat, offered.

'Because it's more like “skillful” I'd say'
an instant knitting of her brows appeared on the fresh-faced
girl sitting in the middle that did not escape the teacher
who said 'What about you?'

She said, 'I'd use sophisticatedly', when the hat boy said,
'No, it's more than just that.' The girl went silent
the teacher, instead of giving his translation, asked if any knew what
'long soup' and 'short soup' meant

seeing no one did he went online in search
of the pictures but they were not right at baidu.com
and were not available on Google or Yahoo
so he revealed that long soup stood for noodles

and short for huntun or what is known as 'swallowing clouds'
'Now,' he said to the class. 'You tell me what tangyuan
is in English.' One girl said, 'dumplings', and before the teacher finished
saying 'no' the hat-boy said, gropingly, 'round soup'

he won an 'Excellent' from the teacher
who claimed that that was exactly what he had coined
and said that if there was fangtang, it would have to be
square soup before he turned to the yuanhua again

saying how much delighted he would be if there was
an equivalent in English, a language still too primitive
for the yuanhuaness of the Chinese
a two-character combination that literally meant

round-slippery, not eel-slippery
not oil-slippery
not even unctuous-slippery
but round-slippery or round and slippery

on his way home, the teacher was defeated again
when he thought of the impossibility of match
making the two languages in this single expression
that describes a person's unctuousness, like oil or an eel

or that denotes life's smoothness
in a round manner
as round
as a ball

Ouyang Yu

This salty, transgressive book is such a delight. It is so tasty. With a big dollop of larrikin spirit on the side. I am not a bit surprised it is shortlisted for the Kenneth Slessor Prize For Poetry this year, alongside some other very toothsome books.


I do prefer to type up the poems for my blog, even if they are very long, because I get the feel of how they are put together. It is like unpicking a dress to find the ins and outs of it. Any secret gussets? How are the sleeves set in? Is the lining skimped? Etc etc. And I didn't notice, until I was typing Round, how very eccentric the punctuation and capitalisation are. And then I got the rhyme and reason for it. It signals the arbitrary and laborious effort of match making two languages. Amongst other things.



  1. great comments, very poetic, a poem in itself, actually, a prose one, too. thank you so much!