Eileen Chong, A Thousand Crimson Blooms (UQP 2021)
Someone* said recently that the work of a poet isn’t just to write poetry. Poets also teach, mentor, encourage other poets, edit, proselytise for poetry … and the list went on. At the launch of A Thousand Crimson Blooms last month it was clear that by this criterion Eileen Chong is a real poet. I chatted with an emerging poet who has won prizes and attributes it to her inspiration and mentorship. Three other poets, all women of colour, read at the launch, and each testified to Eileen’s kindness, collegiality and solidarity.
The poems in A Thousand Crimson Blooms bear strong testimony to the poet as embedded in a community of poets and other artists. Many of the poems carry epigraphs, and we are given meticulous notes referring us to their sources – most of which are other poems, but at last one is a quote from a conversation with another poet. Sometimes the notes give us web addresses where we can see images of works that inspired a poem.
The sense of connectedness goes further. A central feature of this book, as in Eileen Chong’s previous collections, is the sense of living heritage, in birthplace (her own Singapore and her husband’s Scotland), in family (especially mother and grandmother), in food (maybe not as much as in earlier books, but this is still poetry that makes you hungry), in language (a number of poems make play with the components of Chinese ideograms), and always in poetic tradition.
This connectedness and rootedness provide a sustaining background in poetry that mostly deals with personal pain: bereavement, sexual abuse, illness and surgery, involuntary childlessness, the challenges of migration.
This is a terrific book. I learned a lot, I cried, I laughed, I was confronted. Only a couple of times I was mystified. More than a couple I was surprised by the twist of a last line. I was sent down interesting rabbit holes, and found myself reflecting deeply on my own life. Eileen Chong reads her own work beautifully: you can hear her, among other places, when/if the Sydney Writers’ Festival release a podcast of the session that included her – The Unacknowledged Legislators.
There are so many poems I’d like to spend time with here. There are powerful poems about loss that it would feel almost indecent to write about in this necessarily abbreviated way. There’s ‘Making Sense’, whose beginning sheds light on the poems in general:
I tell my students: poetry is a way to make sense of what you fear. I sing to them of blackbirds. I read my poems aloud
There’s ‘Spring Festival’, which includes similarly suggestive lines:
My husband reminds me I write poems in threes: three lines, three pathways. One for the old life, one for the new and one for the hours I do not notice as they pass.
There’s the ‘The Hymen Diaries’, each of whose four parts responds to a work of art (see mention of rabbit holes above). There’s ‘Child’, whose subtitle, After Andy Kissane’s ‘Joy and a Fibro Shack’, offers generous possibilities for a ‘compare and contrast’ kind of discussion – and many poems like that.
I’ve picked the title poem, ‘A Thousand Crimson Blooms’, mainly because before spending this time with it I didn’t understand how it hung together, starting with what feels like kindergarten innocence and ending with lacerating pain. You can see an earlier version of the poem with a slightly different title on the Peril magazine website (here). Here’s the poem as it appears in the book:
To start with the epigraph: I haven’t read the poem it comes from, ‘Don’t Trample This Flower’ by Bing Xin, but I have learned that Bing Xin was a prolific Chinese woman writer of the 20th century, many of whose works were written for young readers (Wikipedia entry here). These lines are a straightforward call to pay attention to something that is beautiful, easily overlooked and vulnerable.
There’s a smooth transition to the opening lines of the poem. Like the epigraph, they address children/little ones: having looked, now, let’s draw. We’re in a domestic or classroom setting; the voice is that of an adult – a teacher or parent? – addressing small children, possibly in a rural environment. The third line’s invocation of the daily cycle of time has a traditional Chinese feel. It reminds me of the ancient poem, ‘The Peasant’s Song’, that begins, ‘Sun up, work / sundown, rest.’ (That’s Ezra Pound’s translation, in his Canto XLIV.) It’s a benign opening, and my fridge door is covered with just the kind of artworks that the little ones might create. (I should mention to anyone who’s just visiting the blog that I have a three-year-old granddaughter who loves to put pencil/crayon/brush to paper.)
The next three lines could be summarised as detailing the process of drawing the dog and rooster, and the children’s focused, unblinking attention to the task. But the language alerts us that something may be slightly off. ‘Let’s shape their bodies with our hands’ may be just an odd way of describing the movement of hands holding pencils, but it feels a little more dominating. Maybe we’ve moved on from drawing to shaping in clay. The second line takes us a step further with the hint of violence in ‘gouge’. The adult speaker has taken us quite a way from paying close attention to something vulnerable to something on the edge of cruelty, even if it is only cruelty to the paper. In the third line, as I read it, the ‘little ones’ speak. The ‘lidless eyes’ suggests a kind of forced, sustained attention that is far from the relaxed, open regard of the epigraph. That there are a hundred eyes suggests that the context has moved from the intimate to the institutional. I have to admit that on first reading I resisted this darkening mood, but once seen I can’t unsee it, and it refers to a common phenomenon. The late artist Kim Gamble, for example, used to lament the way education put a damper on creativity: that children who draw and paint beautifully in Year 1 of school are generally creating cliché images with no spark of originality by the time they are in Year 3.
I’m generally sceptical of poets who talk about the crucial importance of punctuation and spacing, but I think it’s interesting that where the Peril version has a simple paragraph space before the next stanza, this version has an asterisk. The poet wants to be clear that there’s a substantial break. The stanzas change here too, from three-liners to four-liners, but it’s the asterisk that signals a gear-change to the reader.
Sure enough, there’s now a radical change in tone. The benign teacher/parent has been superseded by a harsh authoritarian voice. If the earlier stanzas were in a small, friendly kindergarten classroom, this is now a disciplined, bullying high-school class, perhaps a laboratory, where there is no room for emotion or vulnerability. Science experiments using test tubes and bunsen burners become metaphors, or maybe metonyms, for the harm done to people in such an impersonal environment. (I don’t think there’s an implication that science is necessarily that way, but the reference to glass and fire do conjure up a chemistry lab in my mind.)
The final stanza follows another leap – in time, in setting, in scale. The speakers are the bullied ones, and the 50 people of the second stanza have grown to be a thousand. Blue-and-white vases are traditional Chinese creations, vulnerable like the flower of the epigraph, emblematic of a long history of artisanal skill and creativity (of the kind that produces gasps on Antiques Roadshow). We have been prepared for their appearance by the echo of traditional Chinese poetry in the first stanza. They are broken, with violence that parallels the breaking of the benign teacher-child relationship of the earlier stanzas. ‘They’ is undefined. If I stick with the classroom reading, they are a particular kind of educator, and in making us do the kind of ‘creativity’ that the curriculum requires, they not only take us away from our innate creative impulses, they make us tread all over them.
The second last line takes us back to the flower of the epigraph, only now the flower is not ‘by your feet’, but part of oneself. It is our blood, our suffering, that now produces the flower, that becomes the subject of art. Creativity and pain are now closely linked.
The final line takes a step back. I can best say how I read it by attempting a paraphrase: In our present wounded condition, any attempt to make art must find a deep connection to tradition or some other form of community, if it is to have any vitality. Of course, it doesn’t refer only to the making of art: I think of the importance that First Nations elders place on connection to culture as a means to youth suicide prevention.
Now that I’ve understood how the poem coheres, it hasn’t quite finished with me (and perhaps never will have). The reading that I’ve sketched so far is loosely tethered to my own life experience. But that reading can expand. The poem could be read as a meditation on part of Bing Xin’s life story: I only know the Wikipedia version, and haven’t read any of her poetry, but she was denounced during the Cultural Revolution, a time when blue-and-white vases were quite literally being smashed.
The poem can be read as a response to a work of art: it was initially written on commission as a response to The Masks of Me, a mixed media installation by Vipoo Srivilasa consisting of ‘a group of small masks that celebrate cultural differences and diversity’. You can see the artwork and the artist’s statement on the Peril magazine site, at this link. Actually, I can’t see this reading at all.
Since it has given its title to this book, the poem can be read as referring to the collection of poems. Many of these poems are indeed filled with pain, unflinchingly named, but what makes them readable – more than just readable, deeply satisfying – is their rootedness. This poem itself is an example of that. The classical references, the restrained language, the way the images are allowed to do their own work on the reader, the formal neatness: all these are a kind of rootedness that let the poem flower.
* Sorry, I don’t remember who said it. I think it was on Al Filreis’s PoemTalk podcast.
A Thousand Crimson Blooms is the ninth book I’ve read for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2021.