Tag Archives: Eileen Chong

Australian Poetry Journal 7:1, Skin

Ali Cobby Eckermann and Ellen van Neerven (editors),  Australian Poetry Journal, Volume 6, Issue 2: Skin (2016)

apj71The cover of this issue of Australian Poetry Journal features a brilliantly eye-grabbing Destiny Deacon photograph, Escape from the Whacking Spoon (2007). As the first issue covered by the new policy of having different guest editors for each issue, this one is edited by two leading Aboriginal poets, which ensures that it follows through on the cover’s promise.

There are three sections:

  • Skin 1: 34 poems by 25 Indigenous writers
  • Skin 2: 16 poems by 13 non-Indigenous writers
  • Transforming My Country (edited by Toby Fitch): 12 poems responding to Dorothea Mackellar’s ‘My Country’,

The selection is very rich, for many of the individual poems and for the extraordinarily valuable dialogue created by placing them between one set of covers. I dog-eared the pages with these poems from the first two sections in my copy (your mileage will very – I recommend you get hold of your own copy via Australian Poetry Pty Ltd’s web site):

  • Claire G Coleman, ‘Strawberry Juice’: starting from the image of spots of strawberry juice staining her writing paper, the poet plays with the notion that directions for colonial killings and records of them were written on paper. Ink stains, like blood stains, can’t be removed, and the lines that bring it home:
    _
    __Notice how paper covers rock
    __Covers
    __My country, my people are one
    __Notice how easily paper tears
    _
  • Aunty Kerry Reed-Gilbert, ‘Love comes in many colours’ The poet greets her granddaughter:
    _
    Her blonde hair cool against my black skin her whiteness grabs my heart a new day dawning for this land Australia as we dance to the sounds of the oldest culture in the world. Love comes in many colours.
    _
  • Kate Adler, ‘Sorry’. A non-Indigenous person at a Sorry Camp:
    _
     __Hard to witness wounds like these
    __but love is deeper than skin.

The third section includes work by some heavy hitters of Australian poetry, including brilliant poems by the editors of this issue, Ali Cobby Eckermann and Ellen van Neerven. Eileen Chong (‘My music is wrong – nothing / has been written down right’) and Hani Abdile (‘Opal-hearted country / I’m now one of your unwanted beings / I’ve come to love you sunburnt’) write from immigrant and refugee perspectives. The poem is deconstructed, thesaurised and anagrammatised. Toby Fitch’s introduction describes Lisa Gorton’s conceptually and concretely thrilling poem as an ‘almost-epic’ that ‘explores in microscopic detail the history of the grounds of Royal Park, Melbourne’. I’ll end with some lines from each of the Indigenous takes on the Mackellar poem:

Alison Whittaker (‘A love like Dorothea’s’):

I’m sorry, sweet Mackellar, that it famished all your cows,
y’paddock’s yellow-thirsty-sudden-green; no telling how.
That the gold-hush-rainy-drum hard to your violence and your plow.

Natalie Harkin (‘Heart’s Core Lament’, which is hard to represent accurately here, as it depends on justifying the text on the page, and includes quotes from colonisers’ texts in the margin, but here goes):

harkins.jpeg

Ellen van Neerven (‘My Country’):

my country
is between two rivers

two ribs
two hip bones

Ali Cobby Eckermann (‘Transforming My Country’, which plays with Mackellar’s words to produce radically different meanings):

Who pays back to Earth?

Not she and soft-hearted love
What a hush of her heart, and her
I have her share, her jewel
Though not her land
Your love of my land is tragic

——-

(I won’t repeat my own favourite anecdote about ‘My Country’ and Dame Mary Gilmore, If you’re interested you can read it here.)

 

 

AWW 2016 challenge completed

AWW2016 This is my mandatory round-up post about the Australian Women Writers’ Challenge 2016. I undertook to read 10 books by Australian women writers. I read 14, which ranged from revelatory and richly entertaining to definitely meant for readers who aren’t me. Here they are. I’ve tried to be clever with the lay-out. My apologies if it shows up on your screen as a jumble.

Poetry:

img_1551

Pam Brown
Missing Up

x

x

x

x

x

x

x

frag.jpg

Antigone Kefala
Fragments

x

x

x

x

x

x

x

Novels:

seahearts

Margo Lanagan
Sea Hearts

x

x

x

x

x

x

x

x

x

x

x

x

x

x

Short Fiction:

lp

Michelle Cahill
Letter to Pessoa

x

x

x

x

x

x

x

Memoirs:

njb&w

Lesley and Tammy Williams
Not Just Black and White

x

x

x

x

x

x

x

A comic (that’s a graphic novel to those who think ‘comics’ means superheroes or Disney):

alli

Lee Whitmore
Ada Louise

 

x

x

x

x

x

x

Essays:

qe60

Laura Tingle
Political Amnesia

1925355365

Helen Garner Everywhere I Look

 

x

x

x

x

x

x

I’m signing up for the 2017 challenge.

My general gender stats: This year I read 39 books by men and 31 by women.This includes at least five (the Y: The Last Man series) that were jointly written by a man and a woman.

Australian Poetry Journal 5.2 and 6.1

Michael Sharkey (editor),  Australian Poetry Journal, Volume 5, Issue 2 (2015)
———,  Australian Poetry Journal, Volume 6, Issue 1 (2016)

Australian Poetry Journal is the nearest thing we have to a community newsletter for Australian poets and poetry-readers. It is delivered twice a year to paid-up  members of Australian Poetry Ltd. My copy tends to wait until I’ve got a book on the go that’s too bulky to read while walking. Thanks to a couple of hefty books, I’ve recently caught up on two issues, as well as last year’s anthology (also covered by the cost of membership). In case you’re interested, the joys of these journals aren’t restricted to members: anyone can buy copies, and the entire contents of issue 5:2 are up online. I’ve included links.

APJ-5-2.jpg Issue 5:2 leads with a wonderful profile (here) by Dan Disney, Un Gyung Yi and Daye Jeon of some contemporary Korean poets, including octogenarian Ko Un, whom Allen Ginsberg called ‘a demon-driven Bodhisattva’. In other articles, Nicolette Stasko farewells JS Harry, who died last year, quoting generously from her work (here); there’s a knowledgable article about Stuart Cooke (here) and a number of reviews, including a piece on US poet and activist Denise Levertov by Felicity Plunkett (here); Adrian Caesar tells the story of David Musgrave’s Puncher & Wattmann (here).

I can’t resist mentioning that Adrian Caesar, who is enthusiastic about most of P&W’s publications, has misgivings about some of the criticism they publish. After quoting a paragraph of dense academic writing from a recent book, he lets fly:

In its determined promulgation of specialised language, its astonishing lack of wit or irony … and its pervading sense of high-minded seriousness, it made me wonder if the writers were not like adherents of some gnostic sect seeking to articulate their search for the numinous through their ‘belief’ in literary theory.

Shades of the Dunciad Minor.

Then there are the poems, roughly 50 of them. I turned down the corners of too many pages to talk about all the poems I responded to, so I’ll just list some of the raisins from the pudding.

Susan Hawthorne interrogates a photograph of her grandmother in ‘unknowing‘. Jennifer Compton’s ‘Two Women‘ explores the difficulty of the ‘inconstant narrative of bewilderment’ created by, well, is it dementia or just habitual white-lying? Ivy Alvarez, in ‘N‘ riffs on ‘n’ words chosen as if at random from the dictionary:

noctambulist:
_______I once walked out a sleeping house
_______to see the moon
_______trees tethered their shadows
_______and I was the only one that moved

Kit Kelen’s ‘In my incunabula‘ reminisces about technologies past, beginning:

TV was eternity.
There was always the promise of snow

Tom Morton’s ‘November‘ is a very Sydney poem, sweet to read on a cold July day:

The days get longer, a sudden heatwave
And the outrageous heavy sweetness
Of the jacarandas on the river path
Jiggles the deadlocks on
Whole rooms of me
I’ve not been in, this long winter

Jordie Albiston rings in the 2015 New Year in ‘strontium‘. Vanessa Proctor celebrates  a plant in ‘Bathroom Orchid‘. Ron Heard tackles birdsong in ‘currawongs‘. John Stokes offers an oblique love lyric in ‘She feels him at a seaside motel‘ (‘The curves of his buttock / and the moon / are the same’). There’s Andy Kissane, Eileen Chong, Ron Pretty … Michael Sharkey has put together a feast that has something for everyone.

APJ-6-1.jpgHe does it again in issue 6:1, which has a focus on women poets and their concerns: a lively article by Carol Jenkins brings an epidemiological approach to gender and age distribution in Australian poetry anthologies; Heather Taylor Johnson profiles Susan Hawthorne, poet–founder of feminist Spinifex Press; Tegan Schetrumpf argues that writing groups offer an alternative to the patriarchal lone-genius-poet paradigm. Off-theme, but who would complain, is a fine tribute by Helen Nickas to Dmitris Tsaloumis, Greek Australian poet who died in February aged 94; and reviews of work by πO and Lesbia Harford, among others.

And there are another 50 or so poems. I got tears in my eyes (though I defy anyone to guess at which poem), I smiled, I gasped, I felt moments of my own experience vibrate into new life.

‘Old haunts’, a haibun by Sam Wagan Watson, evokes childhood terrors at the sounds of the night. J. Richard Quigley’s ‘Fondue’ utters the thought one dare not speak when offered that cheesy dish. Heather Taylor Johnson’s ‘They Say’ makes poetry that transcends its ‘kids say the darnedest things’ source material. Rod Usher has serious fun with Italian verbs in ‘The imperfect’. My own peculiar edginess about kitchen knives is echoed uncannily in Claire Rosslyn Wilson’s ‘Cooking for Two’, and the precise language of ‘Stories from the kampong’, Mindy Gill’s narrative about a chicken-coop-raiding python, captured my own childhood memory of a similar incident (a significant difference being that, though we talked about the possibility, we didn’t eat the snake or the chickens it had eaten). Rozanna Lilley’s ‘Early onset’ touches on the pain of having someone close affected by dementia.The first poem of Brendan Doyle’s that I read began, from memory, ‘Sittin on the gasbox, / waitin for me dad’; in ‘The Wooden Gate’ here, his father ‘dead these sixteen years’ pays a reproachful visit in a dream. ‘Hearts and Minds’ by Stephen Edgar, master of rhyme, bounces beautifully off an artwork currently being created by the Emerging Artist. Dick Alderson’s ‘nail holes’ reminds me of my youthful fascination with the way holes in an iron shed ‘throw circles / on the floor / like soft pennies’.

There’s history: Virginia Jealous visits Edward ‘Weary’ Dunlop’s war diaries in ‘Weary’s Birds’; and Judith Beveridge’s ‘Ode to Ambergris’ does what it says on the lid, with lovely light musicality. There are elegiac moments, as in Pam Schindler’s ‘Like someone who is leaving’. In the twelve delicate short lines of ‘Jumhoori’, Hessom Razavi describes a cat and laments the state of his native Iran.

Paradoxically, given that I get no sense at all that these poems are competing with each other, there is a prize fort he best poem published in the journal each year.This issue includes 2015’s winner, Andy Kissane’s ‘Alone Again’, reprinted here with commentary from Andy.

I expect if you were asked to make a list of stand-out poems from these journals  your list would be different from mine, but I’m pretty confident you’d find something here to nourish you and give you pleasure.

Eileen Chong’s Painting Red Orchids

Eileen Chong, Painting Red Orchids (Pitt Street Poetry 2016)

I’m an increasingly unabashed Eileen Chong fan, and I love Painting Red Orchids.

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):

Child
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.

AWW2016Painting Red Orchids is the fifth book I’ve read as part of the 2016 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Eileen Chong’s Peony

Eileen Chong, Peony (Pitt Street Poetry 2014)

1peonyThis 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.

awwbadge_2014Peony 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.

Contemporary Asian Australian Poets

Adam Aitken, Kim Cheng Boey & Michelle Cahill, Contemporary Asian Australian Poets (Puncher & Wattmann 2013)

1caapThis book seems to be part of a current efflorescence of attention to Asian Australian writing, and of Australian attention to Asian writing. The current Southerly focuses on ‘Contemporary Diasporic and Postcolonial Poetries’, with particular attention to Asian Australian (or Asian-Australian, or Asian/Australian etc) work. The recent OzAsia Festival in Adelaide included a two-day OzAsia on Page component which featured ‘significant and contemporary Asian and Australian voices’. Vagabond Press’s Asia Pacific Writing Series is looking formidably good.

It’s hard to imagine a more disparate gathering of poets than those collected between these covers, not just in nationality or ethnicity (‘Asia’ is a big and varied place, and there seems to be someone here from just about every part of it except, interestingly, Japan), but in just about every other conceivable way as well. The poetry ranges from work with the exuberance and directness of Spoken Word to compressed, elliptical, allusive capital-L Literary offerings. It’s the poets who are Asian Australian, not necessarily the poetry, so though there are poems of the pain of loss of home and culture (I was going to say ‘nostalgia’, but that’s a word that no longer conveys any sense of real pain), poems that explicitly deal with or enact cultural duality or hybridity, poems about multicultural relationships, poems that tackle white racism head-on, and poems exploring questions of cultural identity, there are also poems that don’t do any of those things.

There is a brief introductory essay from each of the three editors. Adam Aitken outlines and celebrates the extraordinary range of voices and attitudes in the anthology, and the range of possibilities in the term ‘Asian Australian’ itself. Kim Cheng Boey focuses on the experience of migration:

Home is never a given, for first-generation migrants, and continues to be a complex issue for subsequent generations. Being beneficiaries of two or more cultures, and entangled in a complex web of affiliations and attachments, they are wary of identity politics and monolithic formations.

Michelle Cahill points out the anthology’s significance in bringing greater visibility to Asian Australian women poets, who experience ‘the double exile of migration and mediation of patriarchal terrain, so inimical to the female psyche’. Seventeen of the 37 poets in this collection are women, and very few Asian Australian women have been included in any previous anthologies.

All three introductory essays are worth reading, and they give invaluable guidance to the poetry. But in the end, it’s the poetry you pay for – and I’m happy to report that I was immersed in this book for days, being dragged from one engaged mind to another. Christopher Cyrill, whom I have previously known as the events organiser at Gleebooks who always spoke too softly when introducing people, here turns out to have a clear, strong, brilliantly modulated voice in the extract from his prose poem novella Quaternion (and that’s me saying it who hates extracts and doesn’t much care for prose poems). Andy Quan’s ‘Is This?’ is a brilliant abstraction of the moment of anticipation on meeting a new person. Omar Musa contemplates buying a pair of shoes and redefines the notion of choice. I finally get to read Kim Cheng Boey’s ‘Stamp Collecting’, which I’ve heard him read at festivals and loved, and his ‘Plum Blossom or Quong Tart at the QVB’ – what can I say? Eileen Chong is here, with some of the finest poems from ‘Burning Rice’. I was about to read Debbie Lim’s ‘How to Grow Feet of Golden Lotus’ aloud to a friend and then realised I wouldn’t want to inflict it on anyone who didn’t have plenty of time to recover. Merlinda Bobis’s ‘Covenant’ (‘after you bomb my town / I’ll take you fishing / or kite-flying or both’) conveys the poignancy (another word that has lost its hard meaning) of peace for a defeated people. Jaya Savige’s ‘Circular Breathing’ could hardly be more mainstream Australian, a kind of version of Les Murray’s ‘Perfectly Ordinary Rainbow’ set it in Europe and acknowledging Indigenous Australia (with only the barest allusion to Asia, but who’s counting?). Louise Ho’s ‘A Veteran Talking’ is a killer poem, a chilling, hard, dry killer. I’m glad Adam Aitken included a decent, brilliantly varied selection of his own work.

Please don’t let this book be seen as a marginal anthology of poems by the marginalised. It’s a fabulous collection and belongs at the centre of our culture.

Eileen Chong’s Burning Rice

Eileen Chong, Burning Rice (Australian Poetry 2012, Pitt Street Poetry 2013)

1brThis pocket-sized volume was short-listed for the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards along with giants John Kinsella, Peter Rose and Jennifer Maiden. I approve.

I’ve recently read a bunch of scholarly essays about multiculturalism, postcolonialism, cosmopolitanism, hybridity, transnationalism, diasporic writing and other ways of creating or perceiving poetry that is not contained within a single cultural tradition. In that context, I guess these poems by Eileen Chong would be classed as diasporic: most of them deal one way or another with her Singaporean heritage and her separation from it.

But as it happens, I’ve also been rereading (with a heavy heart) some of Seamus Heaney’s poetry, and it strikes me that Chong’s poems about her parents and grandparents, the family’s food traditions, her childhood memories of Singapore streets, even Chinese history and classic Chinese poets, are part of a similar project to Heaney’s when he writes about his parents and forebears, his childhood memories of Irish fields, his tales of Irish saints and scholars. It would be as big a mistake to fence off this poetry in some semi-ethnographic corral as to do that with Heaney’s. Surely everyone can respond at a deeply human level to poetry in which a mind engages with the relationship between the present world and the world of childhood and heritage?

At least that’s my experience. Take the first poem, which also gives the book its title. It begins:

I did not mean to burn the rice tonight.
‘Planting rice is never fun’ – generations
of men, women and children ankle-deep
in padi fields, bent double at the waist,
immersing seedlings day after day.

then goes on to evoke the other kinds of work involved in growing and harvesting rice, before coming back at last to the burnt rice with a killer final line (you can read the poem here). At a personal level, this poem works wonderfully for me. It hooks my emotions by stirring into awareness something of my own very different heritage: four generations of my family – great-grandfather, grandfather, father and brother – have been sugar farmers. Substitute marmalade for rice, and there I am in my inner suburban kitchen, trying to get the quantity of sugar right, enough to make the marmalade set but not too sweet, and lurking not so very far in the background the memory of cane paddocks, cane fires, cane knives and all they meant in my childhood. My personal story is very different from Chong’s and the history of sugar in North Queensland has little in common with that of rice in east Asia, but that’s where the poem touches me, brings part of my mind alive.

I don’t know that that says much about the actual poetry. There are other deceptively straightforward poems about Asian food and about Chong’s parents and grandparents, some striking dramatic monologues spoken by women from east Asian history, including a number connected to Lu Xun (considered by many, according to Wikipedia, to be the leading figure of modern Chinese literature), some sweet encounters with other Australian poets. I’m looking forward to more.

awwbadge_2013This seems to be the tenth book I’ve read as part of the Australian Women Writers’ Challenge