Eileen Chong, Rainforest (Pitt Street Poetry 2018)
The book’s title is explained in a note: the Chinese character on the cover, which is the third character of Eileen’s Chinese name (the Lin of Zhang Yi Lin) ‘refers to a constant, nourishing rain’, but the radicals that comprise it are yu, meaning ‘rain’, and mù, the radical for ‘wood’. So though the word doesn’t translate as ‘rainforest’, the note explains, ‘the rainforest is embedded within the word itself’. The poem plays on the contrasting connotations of this and those of her western name, Eileen/Helen:
My namesake, so greatly desired
men set fire to a thousand ships –
the light they must have given off,
each sail a blackened flame sooting
the sky. I prefer the rain, a cloud
cradling drops that fall at an angle
over a forest waiting to receive.
It goes on to offer a kind of poetic manifesto in the form of a playful take on nominative determinism – the idea that unconscious processes mould our lives to fit our names: we can choose, it says, how to read our names. What an advantage it is if your name can be represented in pictograms!
So ‘Rainforest’ invites us to expect something like a self-titled album. And the book is intensely personal, though generous to the reader, inviting us in to play, to commiserate, to share joy and occasionally, as in the title poem, to learn.
There are four roughly equal sections, ‘East’, ‘South’, ‘West’ and ‘North’. It’s not that there’s a narrative, but the book has a dramatic shape, and it works so well that I had to stop reading on the first two pages of ‘North’ to weep tears of relief.
‘East’ comprises poems of Chong’s Singaporean Chinese heritage, childhood family, and identity: poems feature food, history, places, connections with other Chinese expatriates. ‘South’ is a collection of Australian poems: places again, artworks, relationship to First Peoples, and especially the five-part ‘Country’, a response to Dorothea Mackellar’s ‘My Country’, where Chong stretches beyond her generally joyful tone to include some ugly manifestations of racism, though I don’t think we’re meant to take the bleakness of the final lines, whose context is a ‘coastal walk’, as her last word on her adopted home:
_______________You hear about walkers
who stray and die of thirst or exposure.
Always bring water. Leave enough time
for the return journey. Watch the sun's path.
You're on your own. This country cares for no one.
However ironic, these lines certainly lay the ground for the third section, ‘West’. Geographically, they are mostly if not entirely set in Europe. Thematically they deal with trauma, painful memories, and darkness.
It takes a while to realise what’s happening, because the images and language lose none of Chong’s clarity and grace. From the first poem in the section, ‘Measure’:
Words: fallen soldiers on a page.
They come and they go. Memory
as surprising as a laden donkey
picking its way towards the church
at the top of a hill. On this island
even the cats sleep with one eye open.
Or this, from ‘Tide’:
That morning in spring I'd thought
I was at peace. To think of you and walk
past without pain. This evening the moon
rose above the treeline. I stepped into
the garden – sharp, clean air. Autumn.
The same moon, but changed.
As the section progresses, the poems become more graphic: violence in an intimate relationship, miscarriage and childlessness are evoked in unsparingly explicit language. Really, don’t read ‘Sandpaper’ if you’re feeling fragile.
The geographical reference of the final section, ‘North’, is Scotland. Thematically, it opens with a deft piece of misdirection, ‘Warhol: Notebooks’, a wonderfully sensuous account of a Warhol pencil drawing of a ‘man undressed, lying on his back’, the soles of whose feet form
________________________a wrinkled cave
of skin, akin to a woman's soft receiving
It turns out that unthreatening erotic allure of this announces the theme of beautifully. After the ordeals of ‘West’, the poet finds happiness and intimacy with a man rom Scotland. The poems are full of the joy of that relationship. While it would be a mistake to take every poem in the book as strictly autobiographical, one can’t help but be very glad for Eileen Chong, particularly in the half-dozen love poems that start with the section’s title poem, whose final lines are where I started crying:
True north: I sought you
in the darkest of nights.
Drop anchor. Deep harbour.
There’s a lot more to this book than I’ve been able to say. Kim Cheng Boey has a beautiful and enlightening review in the Sydney Review of Books. He may not be as keen on the third and fourth sections as I am, but if if I haven’t persuaded you to have a look at Rainforest, perhaps he will.Rainforest is the twentieth and last book I’ve read for the 2018 Australian Women Writers Challenge.