Luoyang Chen reviews The Open by Lucy Van

The Open

by Lucy Van

ISBN: 9780648917601

Cordite Books

Reviewed by LUOYANG CHEN

Perth is getting colder and I am getting cold. I am on my way to get some jumpers from Target. Writing this review in my head while walking to the bus stop, I am thinking: This is great. I want to test the limits of this review like Lucy Van tests the limits of poetry in The Open.

With being open comes full disclosure. I disliked Van the first time I saw her. It was early in the morning roughly 5 years ago and it was a poetry lecture on Sappho and O-. For someone like myself who only started eating breakfast about 2 days ago, Van’s monotone was pretty awful, adding agitation to my already agitated mood. I needed something more engaging! As the semester went, I became intimidated by her. Then I wished I were her. And then it was me who cried hysterically in her lecture because of “Someday I’ll Love Ocean Vuong”(1), because of Bhanu Kapil’s lying nakedly on the ground, drinking peepees(2), and Ban(3), because of the context of bringing personal experience into reading poetry of others, because of the context of interpersonal and institutional racism. And then, as it went, Lucy sent me an email, offering unconditional support to someone who she barely knows. Because it was not an act of kindness but kindness of an act. I did not reply to her email though because I could not make sense of what it is like to be on the receiving end. Then it was The Open

Gareth Morgan’s review (4) on the “sentence structure” (?) is pretty good. Angelita Biscotti’s take on “open relations”(5) is fantastic. And because they did that I am doing something different. 

Van brings poetry into living, not life into poetry. In The Open, the poet-speaker (or Van herself) narrates stories of her lively interactions with friends, families, strangers, and literature. On the surface level, I would be lying if I say it is not tempting to categorise the book as a travelogue. Melbourne, Perth. Saigon. Wangi… But let’s pretend that it is a travelogue, then poetry is nothing but documentation of descriptions, representations, observations, and self-reflections. This is to say that the poet makes poetry out of their lived experience. This is also to say that life is the raw material for poetry. In this sense, poetry is pretty much dead. That’s cool. What is cooler, though, is that (I feel) that is not what The Open is about. If anything, it is about testing the boundary of poetry, about redefining poetry as a verb, about poetrising (not poeticising) life, about making poetry alive, about making poetry become life. To write better is to live better. 

How to live better? 

For example, one can start, like Van does in the first line that opens the first poem, Hotel Grand Saigon, by brining writing poetry present in the here and now. Van writes: “I have gone back and now I am here” (p.3). Where is she? She is “facing a lifeguard’s chair and a lifesaver” in “a colonial swimming pool” in Saigon. Where did she go? Did her mind travel back to Australia? This first line is genius for its simplicity with great intensity. Ambiguous colonial identity (i.e., being the colonial subject and object at the same time), power imbalance, privilege, guilt, trauma, violence, and history are unleashed in the act of going back and coming here. “I have gone back and now I am here” is vitally apostrophic despite not having an obvious “O”. One way to start living better is to be aware of the background, the system that makes now now and makes here here. But where does poetry have a play in this living? Well, to me, this way of living itself is poetry. It is meaningful. It is aesthetic. It engages with the world. It has at least a point of view, a voice, a poetic technique, a form, a sense of weirdness…

How to live better? 

Van continues in sequence V of Hotel Grand Saigon, wherein she argues for the ethics of writing in her assertive NEVER. She writes, “Never write a poem about a boat. In fact, never translate and never use metaphors. Never use verse to pray for the sight of land nor record the anguish of typhoon season. This is when you leave because no one expects escape under these conditions” (p. 7). What more can I say here? Two things. One: do not write about experiences that are not yours. Two: even if it is your own experience, writing about it does not represent or transform that experience. Bombs are bombs. Typhoon is typhoon. Writing about this might make the writer and the reader feel better, but it can never negate the atrocity of the source of violence. Having said that, what Van does here is writing about not writing it. It seems like Van is unable to reconcile the paradox of this writing/living. However, if The Open is not poetry but life, or The Open is the redefinition of life as poetry, then it makes sense for Van to say NEVER. Because to say is to do. To say NEVER is to NEVER do. 

How to live better?

In her interview with Cher Tan on Liminal, Van said that “tennis is a major structuring principle of The Open”. What is tennis? Van explains,

“Tennis has no time limit. The question, ‘When does the match end?’ makes no sense. Tennis just goes on. Like other things that are real, there is no limit. Except for violations. If you have a problem with this, you don’t like the good tennis” (p. 39).

The Open is tennis! The Open is full of violations. For example, Van uses the real names of the real people. This is a violation of privacy. Another example, Van is an Aussie traveller who does “nothing for [her]self because the workers do everything for [her]” (p. 7). Last example, the life/poem is narrated in Australian English. None of these is Van’s choice. And yet. And yet, understanding these violations and the attempt of trying to reconcile these violations are present throughout the moments of life. And because I have no problem with this, nor does Van, The Open is a good tennis, good poetry, good life. 

I want to return to Van’s kindness, to my interactions with her. We never really spoke in person. In fact, we barely message each other over social media. To some extent, I am still intimidated by her. From another angle, I feel like she is a kin to me. But this is pure fantasy and imagination and it is full of this “I”. Van would probably think: What the hell. But consider this a violation.


1. This is a poem by Ocean Vuong.
2. To share the bodily experience of what it is like to witness and then experience racism in her childhood (i.e., a white-supremacist youth used to wake up very early in the morning so he could urinate into the milk bottles of Bhanu’s Gujrati and Kenyan neighbours), Bhanu Kapil drank her urine in front of a live audience at Harvard University in 2015. A recording of this performance can be found on YouTube
3. Ban is Ban en Banlieu (Nightboat Books, 2015), a body-poetry collection by Bhanu Kapil.
4. Gareth Morgan’s review titled “Shitheads: well are we doing this” was published in Overland Issue 245 Summer 2021.
5. Angelita Biscotti’s review titled “Open Relations” was published by Liminal on 30 November 2022.

LUOYANG CHEN currently lives on the unceded Whadjuk Noongar Boodja. Flow (Red River/Centre for Stories, 2023) is his debut poetry collection. He has another poetry manuscript and is currently writing “Who Live More”.  He was born and raised in Fujian, China.