Eileen Chong, Peony (Pitt Street Poetry 2014)
Between reading it and writing this blog post, I made the mistake of reading comments by other poets on Eileen Chong’s page at Pitt Street Poetry. It was a mistake because, well, what can I say here beyond ‘Go and read what they said’ and then ‘Go and read the poems’?
This is from Rhyll McMaster (the phrases in quotes are, obviously, from the poems):
Displacement, attachment, sweat, warmth and food, communion, aloneness, disquiet and longing – these poems coax shadows out of dark recesses, ‘layered like memory, like grief.’ Their strength lies not in their settings but in their familiarity with the human spirit, ‘at our true selves, so far, yet so close to home’.
Then I read Kim Cheng Boey’s review in Mascara of Chong’s first book, Burning Rice:
The poems here are informed by what James Clifford calls ‘the empowering paradox of diaspora’, which is ‘that dwelling here assumes solidarity and connection there.’ They ride the creative tension between countries, cultures and languages. …
At the heart of Burning Rice are delicately and meticulously crafted meditations on the complex web of attachments, loss and longing, so rich with imagery and narrative that they transcend the poet’s own ethnic, cultural and regional background.
So yes, what they said, it’s still true of this book – diaspora, familiarity, meticulousness, complex web of attachments – though they don’t mention the pleasure these poems bring to the reader.
Eileen Chong came to Australia from her native Singapore in 2007, and her poems are shot through with the experience of migration, with a sense of displacement. To use Kim Cheng Boey/James Clifford’s terms, some look back to there; some burrow into the intimacy of here; others go elsewhere (it’s interesting, the way traveller’s tales, traveller’s poems, have a different weight when written by someone with a history of migration).
The book is divided into four untitled sections. The first deals largely with grandparents, parents and childhood memories. The second, which includes most of the travel poems, is largely addressed to a spouse – and who could resist the comic vision of terror and intimacy in ‘Mid-Air Disaster’? The third section turns to other friends and family, celebrating births and birthdays, reminiscing, cooking together. (Food and cooking loom large all through the book.)
The fourth section is a miscellany – ekphrasis (a word my iPad’s autocorrect doesn’t like, and nor do I much, a hi-falutin way of saying poetry about artworks), history, dreams, Sydney scenes and more. This section sent me off to read Adrienne Rich’s fabulous ‘Love Poems’ and to rediscover Robert Wiles’s famous photograph of Evelyn McHale taken just after she suicided by jumping off the Empire State Building. The book ends with the title poem, whose last lines may be the only place where the notion of diasporic identity is raised in the abstract, only to be challenged, with characteristic equanimity:
——————One lady nods and smiles:
China’s national flower. Is it? Am I? I’ve forgotten.
Here’s a video of Eileen (pronounced Ee-leen, by the way) reading three of her poems.
Peony is the fifth book I’ve read as part of the 2014 Australian Women Writers Challenge. Pitt Street Poetry sent me a complimentary copy with a personal – and accurate – note saying it was for my reading pleasure.