Carcanet, August 2022
Paperback, 92 pages
By reimagining episodes from Homer's Odyssey, Jay Gao's highly anticipated debut collection, Imperium, introduces an innovative talent whose work cuts across poetic traditions, traversing mythic cartographies and imperial formations. Exploring forms of absolute and intimate power, Imperium is an imaginative meditation on how the past lives on in the present by way of, and beyond, a global poetics of diaspora.
'These poems reject the heroism of the legible "I". If a central figure emerges it might be that of the Anti-Translator, not there to disclose personal information but to reveal the bareness of our "corpse-lives". Jay Gao's Imperium marks a new chapter in British poetry, bringing to bear a new complexity, richness of thought and influence.'
Will Harris, author of RENDANG
'Nuanced, challenging, sometimes hilarious, often anguished, this impressive reimagining of The Odyssey makes for an unforgettable road trip; Gao’s Odysseus is a nervy and compelling traveller, a sort of non-hero, itinerant and always somewhat lost. The translator has always slipped off; we are never in possession of the shibboleth that would admit us home. Waylaid with Gao in hotel bars and tour buses, we are estranged, sensitized as we go to the dislocations and non-belonging of children of the world’s diasporas, and also to the structures of appropriation and exploitation embedded in travel. We are all conditioned and implicated; but perhaps this acute and attentive Odysseus is exactly who we need to help us listen to the buried histories of Imperialism, to “wait a little differently, mourn a / little more”.'
Fiona Benson, author of Vertigo & Ghost
'The first full collection by the young Chinese-Scottish poet introduces a prodigiously assured and gifted new voice. Gao is searchingly intelligent across an exceptionally wide range of material. This includes bereavement, the natural world, classical myth, US veteran’s trauma and living a hyphenated identity in a post-colonial world – examined, in the poem Hostis, through the image of a mosquito trapped in cling film in an inflight meal. Imperium doesn’t simply namecheck ideas and experiences, but explores them, with vital and disconcerting results. Not Unequal to Many moves with rapid grace from observation of nature to an evocation of classical Greek priests scrying entrails: “those suited egrets waited by the stream for their / sweetbreads / like a map each new world opens with a knife to the body”. This rich hinterland of knowledge is never fusty, always alive, even in the beautiful Body Sonnet, fractured by grief and haunted by “the breath of those / inert evenings … / hospital windows from the last night ever”.'
Fiona Sampson in The Guardian
'Jay Gao re-works The Odyssey into his own footnote with clarity and finesse. The conditions of being scattered to the winds is second nature to these poems, which are rightfully wary of resting on structures of home, history, desire in line with imperialist myths that should not be trusted. Beautiful and brimming, Gao pushes at forms, world-builds atop nationalistic realities, mutably changes state, and, even when still, remains in constant, ticking motion.'
Leah Jun Oh in Poetry Book Society Autumn Bulletin
'Imperium is an askance and enthralling book. It takes patience, but the work is rewarded [...] The reader may wish to skip to the middle of the book, and an astonishing prose-poem called “Nobody” which most clearly riffs on “The Odyssey”; but translated into a world of humid hotel rooms, anonymous bars, colonial exploitation, where “light jazz stumbles in from the reception like released, newly-anaesthetised, hostages”.'
Stuart Kelly in The Scotsman
'Jay Gao's Imperium takes us on a tourist tour of the world to explore the temptations that beset the lyrical imagination on holiday in the imperial zones of globalization [...] This is an elaborately resourceful book, driven by a wittily self-conscious and politically savvy comic brio, satirical about its staging of its very counter-imperial animus, a powerful and febrile text.'
Adam Piette in Blackbox Manifold
'Jay Gao’s debut, so-named, promises poetry that disturbs singular ways of looking at or dealing with power. Imperium’s references and touchstones range across time and space (from Angkor Wat to Odysseus to the Vietnam war), admirably managing to reckon with such an epic sweep of ideas through the lens of the lyric “I” (disguised, sometimes, as the lyric “you”), in a relatively slim volume of poems.'
Tse Hao Guang in Asian Books Blog
'Imperium is about power in many senses. It brings in alienation and diaspora, cultural influence and enchantment, language and tradition, entanglement and loss. And language, always language. It’s about the world en route to uncertainty, no idea where home (if it even exists) might be or what it might be called [...] And so he brings lived experience to bear, pulling in new references as he goes, an unrooted traveller on a complex, demanding, challenging journey. I was privileged to travel with him for a while, and I have come back changed. When I arrived at the end of Imperium for the third time, two things were true. I was buzzing with ideas and questions, and I was curiously moved. Which is what I had been looking for all along.'
Helena Nelson in This Friday Poem