Eileen Chong, Burning Rice (Australian Poetry 2012, Pitt Street Poetry 2013)
This pocket-sized volume was short-listed for the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards along with giants John Kinsella, Peter Rose and Jennifer Maiden. I approve.
I’ve recently read a bunch of scholarly essays about multiculturalism, postcolonialism, cosmopolitanism, hybridity, transnationalism, diasporic writing and other ways of creating or perceiving poetry that is not contained within a single cultural tradition. In that context, I guess these poems by Eileen Chong would be classed as diasporic: most of them deal one way or another with her Singaporean heritage and her separation from it.
But as it happens, I’ve also been rereading (with a heavy heart) some of Seamus Heaney’s poetry, and it strikes me that Chong’s poems about her parents and grandparents, the family’s food traditions, her childhood memories of Singapore streets, even Chinese history and classic Chinese poets, are part of a similar project to Heaney’s when he writes about his parents and forebears, his childhood memories of Irish fields, his tales of Irish saints and scholars. It would be as big a mistake to fence off this poetry in some semi-ethnographic corral as to do that with Heaney’s. Surely everyone can respond at a deeply human level to poetry in which a mind engages with the relationship between the present world and the world of childhood and heritage?
At least that’s my experience. Take the first poem, which also gives the book its title. It begins:
I did not mean to burn the rice tonight.
‘Planting rice is never fun’ – generations
of men, women and children ankle-deep
in padi fields, bent double at the waist,
immersing seedlings day after day.
then goes on to evoke the other kinds of work involved in growing and harvesting rice, before coming back at last to the burnt rice with a killer final line (you can read the poem here). At a personal level, this poem works wonderfully for me. It hooks my emotions by stirring into awareness something of my own very different heritage: four generations of my family – great-grandfather, grandfather, father and brother – have been sugar farmers. Substitute marmalade for rice, and there I am in my inner suburban kitchen, trying to get the quantity of sugar right, enough to make the marmalade set but not too sweet, and lurking not so very far in the background the memory of cane paddocks, cane fires, cane knives and all they meant in my childhood. My personal story is very different from Chong’s and the history of sugar in North Queensland has little in common with that of rice in east Asia, but that’s where the poem touches me, brings part of my mind alive.
I don’t know that that says much about the actual poetry. There are other deceptively straightforward poems about Asian food and about Chong’s parents and grandparents, some striking dramatic monologues spoken by women from east Asian history, including a number connected to Lu Xun (considered by many, according to Wikipedia, to be the leading figure of modern Chinese literature), some sweet encounters with other Australian poets. I’m looking forward to more.