Eileen Chong, Painting Red Orchids (Pitt Street Poetry 2016)
As in her previous books, these poems refer back to the poet’s childhood in Singapore, to the China of her forebears, and also to her present home in Australia; much food is prepared and eaten; there is conversation with other poets living and dead, Chinese and Western; and there are travel poems, this time to suburban Sydney and rural Australia as well as Singapore and Hong Kong.
All of this is given us with generosity and lucidity, and an occasional revelatory jolt. The restraint of classic Chinese poetry is never far away, and a number of poems are explicitly dedicated to great poets of the past.
There are love poems – heartbreak as well as new love. Someone (it might have been Margaret Mahy or Diana Wynn Jones) said that food is the sex of children’s literature. Food doesn’t quite equal sex in Eileen Chong’s poetry, but it comes close and may be even better, more intimate, as in ‘Xiao Long Bao (Little Dragon Dumplings)’, which describes the making of these dumplings and then the look on her lover’s face when he tastes them, and even more so in ‘A Winter’s Night’, in which the speaker, presumed to be of Chinese heritage, prepares Scotch broth for her Scottish-born partner:
This, here, made from my hands,
his memories – we consume spoon after spoon
of history and desire and laugh about the future.
A strand of deep melancholy runs through the book: there’s dementia, death, a relationship break-up, and this (I need to quote the whole poem):
And if he had lived – grown
to fruition in my mother’s womb,
pressing against her bladder
so she would have needed to have emptied
it every hour – I would have been the middle
child. I would have had an older brother
and a younger; I, the singular female.
Instead, there are just the two of us,
brother and sister, circling like moons,
gripped by the gravity of disappointment.
My father would come home and pretend
he’d brought us a puppy. Once, the bag
even barked: but it was only a toy dog.
My mother named this dead brother.
She imagines he might have lived if she
had done this, or had not done that. If
he had lived, I might not have left home
so soon in search of my own arc and orbit.
If my own two had lived, what then? But the dead
remain dead, and I am the last child to arrive.
I love the way this edges up on its real subject. Not that the impact of the speaker’s mother’s miscarriage on their family – the siblings’ enduring sense of someone missing, the mother’s what-ifs, possibly the speaker’s leaving – wasn’t real. And the three lines about her father’s teasing with pretend dog-gifts could have expanded into poem in its own right. But ‘If my own two had lived’ turns the poem inside out, and we realise that its emotional charge comes from the speaker’s own loss: she can speak of her mother’s bladder and mental processes, not from the perspective of her remembered childhood, but from her own experience as a woman; the barking of the toy dog is freighted with deep grief; the image of circling without a centre is conjured up by the much later loss. The final line, which at first reading I took to answer the question whether the lost brother was older or younger, does do that, but also laments the speaker’s childlessness – not just the last child in that family, but the last in the family line. So much is conveyed, so little said out loud. I think of James McAuley’s ‘Pietà, ‘I cannot tell, / I cannot understand / A thing so dark and deep, / So physical a loss’.
Eileen is currently blogging on the Southerly site. Her interview with herself at that link is well worth reading. Here’s an excerpt:
Do you consider yourself an Australian poet?
This is a question about hybridity. Am I a Singaporean poet? An Asian-Australian poet? An Australian poet? An interesting woman poet? A Chinese poet? A confessional poet? A food poet? I think I might be all of the above, sometimes all at the same time.
Painting Red Orchids is the fifth book I’ve read as part of the 2016 Australian Women Writers Challenge.