Tag Archives: Eileen Chong

Elieen Chong’s Uncommon Feast

Eileen Chong, The Uncommon Feast: Essays, Poems and Recipes (Recent Work Press 2018)

In 2017, Eileen Chong’s third book of poetry, Painting Red Orchids, was shortlisted for the Australian Prime Minister’s Literary Awards. At the awards ceremony, a senior poet told her that many of her poems were like recipes, and if she collected them into a book she might have some success with it. She writes about this comment, and her reaction to it, in the first essay of The Uncommon Feast. ‘I am speechless,’ she says. ‘I feel put in my place, and ashamed.’

Happily, the shame didn’t last. The Uncommon Feast is a beautiful, generous, delightful response to that comment. It contains poems that are like recipes, as well as actual recipes. And it is much richer and more rewarding to culinary and non-culinary readers alike than anything her fellow poet presumably had in mind.

As Judith Beveridge says in her Introduction, the poems are at the heart of the book, but the prose essays and recipes, and the line drawings by Chong’s husband Colin Cassidy, are what transform it from a slim vol of poetry to a feast of a book. ‘The Common Table’, a short essay first published in Meanjin, which includes the account of the awards evening, also gives us the wonderful (food-related) moment when Chong’s mother understood that she was a writer; and ‘Eating and Telling: A Personal Food History’, is a quick autobiography told in terms of food – the school canteens (Singapore’s version so much more interesting than North Queensland’s), family meals, dining with partners, the bliss of cooking and eating with her husband. If we needed instructions on how to read Chong’s food poems, they are there:

Food, for me, is representative of family, culture, nourishment and love. I’ve learned how to cook from my grandmother, my mother, my friends’ mothers, and my partners over the years. The dishes I prepare are a palimpsest of experiences and cultures, new and old.

I’m surrounded by people who say they don’t get poetry – they feel intimidated by it, or see it as lost up its own wazoo. If any one book could convert them to poetry lovers, this would be it. There are many wonderful moments. For example, ‘Chinese Ginseng’ is a very fine poem in which the poet’s mother offers ginseng as a traditional cure for what the daughter knows to be irremediable. It ends:

--------------------------------------There is no point
in telling my mother what she doesn't want to hear:
------polycystic ovaries,
endometriosis, infertility. Instead, I just listen – I can
------almost taste

her soup, sweet dates and wolfberries, smoky angelica
------and lilybulb,
but above all, the unmistakeable bitter-sweetness of
------Chinese ginseng.

Such a great moment! Ginseng may not be a cure for the physical ailment, but it becomes a sacrament of the mother’s love. Facing the poem is Colin Cassidy’s drawing of a ginseng root, inscribed with the words ‘panacea, tonic, necessity’ Then you turn the page to a recipe for Chinese Ginseng Chicken Soup, and you’re invited to join the moment with your own soup-making, soup drinking body.

The book is full of segues, and juxtapositions like that. I laughed out loud a number of times for sheer joy.

The Uncommon Feast is the third book I’ve read for the 2019 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

End of year lists

The Emerging Artist and I are in Victoria for the New Year, but we’re squeezing in (or should that be squeezing out?) our end-of-year lists.

Best Movies:

We allowed ourselves to pick five each. The Emerging Artist went first, and then I chose five that weren’t on her list. The last one I picked was Juliet, Naked – and it got in on the grounds that there was no comedy on the combined list. There probably should have been more.

Theatre:

It’s hard to single out best theatre for this year. Belvoir Street had a good year, beginning with My Name is Jimi and ending with The Dance of Death, with treasures in between. And we spent six weeks in London, where we managed to go to some excellent theatre. We get to name one each from London and Sydney for the year. We both chose Matthew Lopez’ The Inheritance Part 2 at the Old Vic in London (we were exhausted on the evening we’d booked for Part 1, but Part 2 was stunning as a stand-alone event). It’s about Gay men in the age of AIDS. We booked because Vanessa Redgrave was in it, but though she was terrific she was by no means the main attraction.

Back home, the EA chose debbie tucker green’s one-hander, random, directed by Leticia Cáceres, with a bravura performance by Zahra Newman. I chose Calamity Jane, directed by Richard Carroll, which was great fun – Virginia Gay’s raucous, swaggering gaucheness made Doris Day’s Jane look like a maiden aunt.

Books:

Rather than a list of our Best Books, I’ve decided to follow a meme that originated at the vlog memento mori and came to me by way of Lisa at ANZ LitLovers LitBlog.

1) What’s the longest book I read this year and the book that took me the longest to finish?

Emerging Artist: Victoria: The Queen by Julia Baird (Random House 2016) was both. It was a Christmas present, whose size meant it was awkward to read in bed, so I was reluctant to take it on, and then the detail, though fascinating, needed breaks to digest. It turned out to be an excellent complement to the British TV series, which we watched soon after I finished reading the book, and a welcome gift after all.

Me: The longest book was probably Gerald Murnane’s Collected Short Fiction (Giramondo 2018).

The one that took longest was either Jennifer Maiden’s Selected Poems 1967–2018 (Quemar Press 2018) or Judith Beveridge’s Sun Music: New and Selected Poems (Giramondo 2018): they both include decades of work by fine poets, and I enjoyed them both immensely.

2) What book did I read in 2018 that was outside of my comfort zone?

EA: Deep Time Dreaming by Billy Griffiths (Black Inc 2018) is a fascinating book about palaeontology and archaeology in Australia in relation to actual Aboriginal people, but there’s a lot of technical scientific writing that is not my favourite recreational fare.

Me: Gerald Murnane’s Collected Short Fiction again. I had gleaned something of his characteristic style some time ago and completely failed to grasp how wonderful it is. I wouldn’t have opened the book if it hadn’t been picked for the Book Group. Reading it was a joy-filled revelation.

3) How many books did I re-read in 2018?

EA: None.

Me: Just one, Jane Austen’s Emma. I loved it all over again.

5) What book did I read for the first time in 2018 that I look forward to re-reading in the future?

EA: Change the question to, ‘What writer did I read in 2018 that I look forward to re-reading?’ My answer is Geoff Dyer. I first read him years ago, and rediscovered him this year when I found The Colour of Memory on our bookshelves. I’ve just bought Out of Sheer Rage, his book about himself and D H Lawrence.

Me: There are so many, but I’ll pick David Malouf’s An Open Book (UQP 2018). I will dip into so many of the books of poetry I read this year, but I think this is the one I’m most likely to reread in its entirety. That and Jennifer Maiden’s Appalachian Fall (Quemar 2017) 

6) What’s my favourite short story or novella that I read in 2018?

EA avoids short stories and didn’t read any novellas.

Me: Given that Gerald Murnane is in a class of his own, I’ll name Suneeta Peres da Costa, Saudade (Giramondo 2018), which is a coming of age story set in the context of the Angolan war of liberation. (I was astonished to hear Ms Peres da Costa say at a reading that she has never been to Angola, as the place comes alive in this short book.)

7) Mass appeal: which book would I recommend to a wide variety of readers?

EA: Free Food for Millionaires (Head of Zeus 2018) by Min Jin Lee, author of Pachinko: it’s hard to think who wouldn’t love it.

Me: I know many people these days think of poetry as an esoteric art to be avoided by everyone except poets and cryptographers. All the same, I recommend Eileen Chong’s Rainforest (Pitt Street Poetry 2018) to anyone interested in being alive and human.

8) Specialised appeal: which book did I like but would be hesitant to recommend to just anyone?

EA: I loved Elisabeth Åsbrink, 1947: When Now Begins, translated into English by Fiona Graham (2016, translation 2017). If you are interested in history, then the way this interweaves so many themes as they manifested in 1947 will fascinate you and illuminate our times.

Me: I’m rarely confident that books I’ve enjoyed will appeal to ‘just anyone’, so I’ve got lots to choose from, but bypassing all the titles I’ve mentioned so far, I nominate China Miéville, The Scar (Del Rey Books 2002), which, to quote my blog post about it, ‘includes, not necessarily in order of importance, vampir (sic) bureaucrats, cactus people, probability mining (I won’t try to explain), fabulously bloody sea battles, a sweetly tragic love story (not of the romantic variety), a vast crack in the universe, and a charming account of the process of learning to read.’

And that’s it for 2018. Have a great New Year, reader!

Eileen Chong’s Rainforest

Eileen Chong, Rainforest (Pitt Street Poetry 2018)

Rainforest is Eileen Chong’s fifth book of poems in five years. I’ve blogged about three others here, here, and here and I’m still a complete fan.

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.

Overland 227 & 228

Jacinda Woodhead (editor), Overland 227 (Winter 2017)
—-, Overland 228 (Spring 2017)

overland227It’s not that I read Overland out of obligation, but I do feel guilty if I leave an issue sitting on my to-be-read pile for too long because – among other things – Overland offers left perspectives that aren’t all that easy to come by elsewhere in the Australian media. So here’s a slightly guilty blog post about the two most recent issues.

The star of the winter issue (No 227) is Evelyn Araluen. The journal kicks off with her article ‘Resisting the Institution: On Colonial Appropriation, which takes recent activism around statues commemorating colonial ‘heroes’ as a starting point, and develops into a (for me at least) powerful introduction to the field of decolonial theory (as opposed to postcolonial theory):

Decolonial theory provides the Indigenous subject with the tools to deconstruct and challenge colonial infiltrations into our worlds and minds, but decolonial practice within the academy is restrained to that which the institution regards as profitable. In other words, it is safely contained within the classroom, in the form of critical frameworks, unsettling questions or creative-thinking asseignments. Outside of the university, I have given late-night workshops on decolonial theory to anywhere between two and 200 people, often squished together in a leaky tent.

Later in the journal her short story Muyum: A Transgression, winner of the Nakata Brophy Prize for Young Indigenous Writers, is equally powerful and challenging.

There are the regular columnists, Giovanni Tiso (on owning and keeping books), Alison Croggon (on kindness as a political act), Tony Birch (on his family history, racism and the Australian constitution) and Mel Campbell (on where writers’ ideas come from –  ‘an idea is a promise, not a commodity’). There are solid articles on the gambling industry (by Dan Dixon), tiny presses that publish poetry in Australia (Kent MacCarter), GLBTQ+ politics in contemporary Singapore (Ng Yi-Sheng), Professor Richard Berry and scientific racism (Helen Macdonald), and how much social transformation we can really expect from technological advances under capitalism (Lizzie O’Shea). ‘Pregnant in Mexico’ by Tina Cartwright is a tiny memoir that feels as if it was carved, to good effect, from a longer piece.

There are two short stories in addition to Evelyn Araluen’s prizewinner. ‘Broken zippers‘ by George Haddad, which could serve as a grim companion piece to SBS’s Struggle Street, stands out for me.

There are fourteen pages of poetry. The two poems that spoke most strongly to me are ‘Crossing Galata, Istanbul‘ by John Upton, a tourist poem acutely aware of the limits of its touristic perspective (that’s a mangled quote from Adam Aitken), which captures the feel of Galata Bridge in Istanbul; and ‘The Apology Day breakfast‘ by Ali Cobby Eckermann, which is what it says on the lid, but with a deep, bitter-sweet twist.

The winter issue features the weird photomedia work of guest artist Yee I-Lann.

overland228Sadly, I hadn’t read all of the spring issue (No 228) before it mysteriously went missing on a trip to the supermarket. as a result my vote  for the outstanding items mightn’t be completely valid. But I recommend this edition for Eileen Chong’s poem ‘The Task’ and Olivier Jutel’s article ‘Paranoia and delusion‘.

The Task‘ (do read it at the link; it’s short) is at first blush a straightforward childhood memory of eating crabs, but it drew me in on a number of levels. First, a splendid moral complexity: the crabs have eyes, so we – and the remembered child – know they’re sentient, so there’s no minimising of what’s involved when they are killed and pulled apart, but at the same time there’s frank enjoyment of eating them. Then the opening – ‘We fished with lines, not nets’ – suggests a whole other, metaphorical reading: so by the time we reach the final couplet there’s a strong sense that we’re not talking about crabs any more, at least not only crabs, but something about Chong’s creative process as well:

I left the claws to the others,

preferring only what I could mine
through my own precise undoings

Olivier Jutel’s article is a formidable intervention into the general conversation about Donald Trump.

Domestically, he has mobilised, however chaotically, the most retrograde forces in American society, who experience through him a carnivalesque transgression in ‘Making America Great Again’ one tweet, post and triggered liberal at a time.

He had me at ‘carnivalesque’. The article goes on to rip into the ‘liberal’ media’s obsession with the Russia connection, seeing in it a revival of Cold War emotions, and argues that the Democratic Party is completely at a loss for an adequate political response to the Trump phenomenon, falling back on, among other things, ‘the libidinal deadlock of politics as comedy’. I can’t claim to have followed the whole argument (Jutel is a PhD candidate who quotes Lacan), but if you feel the need of a gust of fresh air amidst the abundant Trump-based sarcasm and despair, this could be the article for you.

Again the regular columnists are worth reading: On coal by Tony Birch (who quotes Murrawah Johnson, spokesperson for the Wangan and Jagalingou community, ‘We’ve seen the end of the world and we’ve decided not to accept it’); On experimentalism by Mel Campbell; On confusing reason and authority by Alison Croggon. Giovanni Tiso has a full-blown article, ‘Dynamite for the people‘, a lively piece on the European anarchists of the late 19th century, and how they differ from 21st century terrorists.

There are, as always, solid articles: Jessica Whyte on the politics of human rights; Mark Riboldi on virtual reality in fact and fiction; Roqayah Chamseddine on conspiracy theorists, those that are nutty and those that turn out to be right. I lost my copy before I got to Michael Brull on Saudi Arabia and Qatar or Chris di Pasquale on religious freedom under the Soviets: they’re up on line or soon will be, but I have trouble with sustained reading from a screen, so I’m sadly giving them a miss.

I did read the winners of the VU Short Story Prize: the winner, Breeding Season  by Amanda Niehaus, and first runner-up, Wharekaho Beach, 1944 by Allan Drew are both excellent. I missed the discussion between Jennifer Mills and Peter Carey about his short story ‘Crabs’, first published in Overland an amazing 45 years ago. It’s a nice idea for an institution like Overland to revisit past glories – I hope there are more interviews like this in the pipeline.

 

Australian Poetry Journal 7:1, Skin

Ali Cobby Eckermann and Ellen van Neerven (editors),  Australian Poetry Journal, Volume 7, Issue 1: 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

frag.jpg
Antigone Kefala
Fragments

x

x

x

x

x

x

Novels:

seahearts
Margo Lanagan
Sea Hearts

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

Memoirs:

njb&w
Lesley and Tammy Williams
Not Just Black and White

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

Essays:

qe60
Laura Tingle
Political Amnesia
1925355365
Helen Garner Everywhere I Look

 

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.