Sweet flesh of memory: Mark Roberts reviews Burning Rice by Eileen Chong

Burning Rice by Eileen Chong. Australian Poetry Limited, 2012.

burning rice
The title poem of Eillen Chong’s first collection of poetry, ‘Burning Rice’, refers to the different amounts of water needed to cook rice. Brown rice needs more than twice the amount of water to cook than white rice. In this instance the poet has miscalculated, forgetting to put in the extra water for brown rice:

…….I smelt the charring
then saw: scorched rice like black gold,

The impact of the burnt rice, however, goes beyond the inconvenience of having to throw out the charred grains, clean the pot and start again. The cooking of the rice is the last step in a long process which, to Chong, is almost spiritual:

‘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

Finally, the harvest: sharp scythes glinting
in the afternoon sun,….

There is a connection between the burnt grains of rice stuck to a pot and the long process of growing and processing the grains. In fact the connection is even deeper for it is not just the process that produced these grains but the generations who have planted and harvested the rice over years. So, in the last line the burning of the rice becomes almost a betrayal of tradition and family:

my ancestors’ ashes in a bowl

It is this connection between the present and the memory of a culturally disparate past, that lies at the centre of the best poems in this connection. For Chong the connection is often difficult, stretched across time, place and culture – but for the most part she manages to maintain and celebrate the richness of this difference.

In ‘Kelong’ this memory is driven by photographs in a album. Perhaps it is a constructed memory, based on the stories the poet has been told about the photos, as these are things she could not know first hand:

My mother smiles at the camera. Her cheeks push
against her glasses and her belly strains with me.

The series of photos in the poem record three generations (the unborn poet, her parents and grandparents) fishing off a jetty, cleaning and cooking their catch. In the final stanza the memory becomes real as chong places herself firmly in the poem, claiming the memory as her own:

I am there as dusk falls, when my grandmother steams

the orange fish in a wok, when my granfather picks out
the eyes with his chopsticks. I can taste the sweet flesh
even as I caress the outline of its carcass…….

The fish has become the link with the past, the ‘carcass’ of a memory, perhaps the earliest physical link the poet has with her family. The ‘”sweet flesh” another layer of memory that the poem has added on top of the original photographs.

This layered memory is also critical to the longest poem in the collection ‘Shophouse Victoria Street’. Here the poet has grown up surrounded by the ordinary domestic activities of generations living in the same space:

My father, dark-haired and pale-bodied, cradles me.
I wear a silk suit with brocade booties and a crooked
smile. On special days I cannot predict, my mother heaves
a large kettle onto the stove and then pours a stream of hot water

into the deep tiled trough. We scoop and pour
scrub and wash. Outside, my grandmother bends over
the black sewing machine. Under the trestle table
her foot pedals out a rhythm.

But Chong’s generation is the last to be born and live here. We are given no explanation beyond:

Family by family, like bees gone mad
we fled the nest

Only Great Grandmother remains, the only reason the family returns to visit until she dies alone “in the upstairs room”. There is a measured grief to this poem, a bitter-sweet memory of an old house, in another country, another culture. It is also a poem where a major break occurs. This is where generations of her family lived, the poem traces the richness of this memory, but also of the break – the great grandmother is left in the old place while the rest of the family swarm like bees trying to find a new home. The funeral that concludes the poem accounces the end – and sugests a new beginning.

There is sense in many of the poems in this collection of the poet making a statement – these are my memories, this is my history, this is my poetry. It is strong statement, well made.

Chong’s poetry is vividly descriptive, at times her languageborders on prose and indeed there is one fine prose poem, ‘My Father’s Lesson’, in the collection. It is, perhaps, the long descriptive lines of these poems, heavy with a sensuous imagery, which helps makes this such an impressive debut. It will be interesting to see how her work develops.

– Mark Roberts


Mark Roberts is a Sydney based writer and critic. He currently edits Rochford Street Review and P76 Magazine.

Burning Rice is available from http://www.australianpoetry.org/2012/04/18/new-voices-series-2012/

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s