Eileen Chong, Peony (Pitt Street Poetry 2014)
This is Eileen Chong’s second book of poetry. It’s bigger and more varied than her first, Burning Rice, but is just as lucid, friendly, and resonant.
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.
It feels somewhat inappropriate to make a comment here – not being a poet, not having read “Peony” but nevertheless with a lengthy displacement experience I feel some sense of kinship thereby. Nonetheless what I want to refer to is the title – and the flower itself – specifically. During some years in the prefecture of Shimane-ken – I came to know – and admire – the (tree) paeony (sic) – called “bogan” in Japanese. It was the prefectural flower – and the prefectural Inner Sea had the island of Daikon-jima on which they were grown and then sold to the entire nation. The family of one of my students, KADOWAKI Eiji, had the largest stroll garden in the prefecture on that island – Yuu-shi-en – a garden my wife and I used to visit almost every year during all my years in Japan. Beautiful in every season for its trees, and general layout – waterways and features – but most of all for its paeonies – especially over Golden Week (a holiday period from the end of April through the first five days of May – now just over for this year) when the blooms are at their best. We used to purchase one or two pots each time – now mostly in the gardens of friends in western Japan for whom they became “omiyage” gifts. The paeony is also one of the 16 national flowers of China.
…called “botan” in Japanese. Auto-correct clearly wanted to give a Strine makeover to that – by transforming it into “bogan”!
Hi Jim, usually I go in and correct typos when people point them out, but that one deserves to live on. Good old auto-correct, like a dog that brings in all the wrong newspapers. The Chinese word in Eileen Chong’s poem is mudan.
And, um, may we be spared from a world where only poets can comment on poetry. It’s interesting that you use the word ‘kinship’ because that’s what I constantly feel with Eileen Chong’s poems, even though I’m fairly sure our common ancestors predate Charlemagne.
Thanks for the tip, from last year, about Portrait of a Turkish Family, by Irfan Orga. I’m in Istanbul at the moment and went to that very same English bookshop to get my copy. It was fascinating, and heartrending all at once. And the son’s notes at the end were equally compelling. In fact your postings from the Turkey trip, which I enjoyed at the time, have proved most useful on a second reading now I’m here.
Sent from my iPad
I’m envious, Kathy: as the cold sets in here how nice to dream of Turkey! I’m glad you’ve enjoyed the book – and glad to help your trip go well.
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