Peony by Eileen Chong was launched by Martin Langford, at the Tilbury Hotel in Woolloomooloo on Sunday 30th March 2014
I first came across Eileen’s poetry when she submitted samples of it for the old Poets Union’s Young Poets’ Fellowships. The work picked itself, and despite the delay occasioned by the transition from that organisation to Australian Poetry, the poems she produced under the Fellowship were eventually published in the first of Australian Poetry’s New Voices series in 2012, in the chapbook, burning rice – a collection which, it is pleasing to see, has been re-issued by the publisher of the present collection, Pitt Street Poets.
Many poets make bright starts and then struggle to kick on, so it is gratifying to see Eileen producing her second collection: I say second collection because, as chapbooks go, burning rice was a remarkably substantial effort – shortlisted as it was for the Prime Minister’s Poetry Prize.
And now we have Peony.
If one loves the idea that a country is a space in which one never quite knows what is going to happen next: that – ideally, at least – a country is a cultural space in which new possibilities keep emerging, then I suggest you have a look at Peony. Because it is precisely the sort of book which allows one to believe in such a thing: a little left-field, the surprising and satisfying product of what must be an ongoing interior dialogue between cultures, and – alongside the work of other Asian-Australian poets – a real contribution to the ways of doing poetry in Australia.
Even though Eileen’s principal language is English, and even though she grew up in a country which shares many customs and traditions with Australia, when she entered this slightly different space, she brought with her enough difference to collectively shape an edge against the usages she found here. It is precisely this edge – subtle, various, but distinctive – that constitutes the nature of the gift she brings here.
A literary tradition is never an homogenous entity: if it is, it’s dead. Rather, it is an accumulation of fracture zones and areas of tension – of differences – that its authors variously attempt to resolve: tensions, say, between city and country, between differently gendered perspectives, between Indigenous and settler. Difficult as they can sometimes to be to manage, they are also stimulating: it is these confrontations which keep traditions vital. Most originality, after all, is largely a product of having one set of perspectives in one’s head, and a slightly different reality to deal with.
I would like to note two elements which Eileen brings to the range of possibilities in this country: one deeply embedded, one suspects, in her imagination, and the other, quite incidental.
The first is the development of emotion through what one might call the accumulation of instances. I missed it at first in these poems: mostly, they are continuous with the tones of conversation, handling the development of their ideas lightly and easily. In fact, when I compared them with what I knew, from translations, of classical Chinese poetry – thinking, also, of the work of another Singaporean-Australian poet, Kim Cheng Boey – it struck me as remarkable that poets who had been brought up in a tradition which seemed so dense and allusive, should be writing an English that was so clean-lined and accessible. The accessible surface, however, was deceptive: just because the manner was different didn’t mean that the thought hadn’t been developed in time-honoured ways. Perhaps the clearest example is the beautifully taut first poem:
after Li-Young Lee
My grandmother cannot read
the words dancing across the screen,
lighting up in time with the music.
She sings from memory,
in the dialect of her youth:
the two of us walk in the rain
sharing a single small umbrella.
If my grandfather were alive
he would light a cigarette and draw
breath until the end glowed
into a fiery red, saying nothing.
It is my father’s turn, and he handles
the microphone as if it’s an old friend.
Beside the road, beneath the banyan tree
is a place I think of often. My mother smiles
and mouths the words in Mandarin,
soundlessly. She too cannot read Chinese.
The tranquil skies and the balmy breezes,
the sweet scent of the grass. I hear only
snatches of meaning in the few words
I understand. Meanwhile, I think on
the puzzle of my grandparents, fertile
and warm, lying together in the dark.
Of my parents, young, newly-burdened
and afraid, whispering each other to sleep.
The rain falls around us with great intensity.
We must walk with care, under the one small umbrella.
It is my turn to sing. I don’t know
any Chinese songs, so I sing in English.
My family is listening.
Each member of the family reveals something different about themselves – by what they understand, by what they sing, by the way in which they enter into the event. Collectively these differences constitute a portrait of the family, as it migrates across geography and cultures, building and shifting, until its complex and disconcerting gaze comes to rest on the author. The point is that this hasn’t been done with commentary and explanation, or with verbs of contrast or similarity. This multi-faceted and quietly emotional situation – the author, after all, has to deal with each of these expectations differently – has simply been allowed to develop through the accumulation of individual voices. I am not suggesting that juxtaposition is not used by Australian poets, it is. But it seems to me to be a starting point in Asian writing, whereas in Australia it has often been an end-point: a minimalist sophistication. To approach one’s material like this brings a slightly different pressure to the creative process to the one we are mostly used to. One can’t predict what effect this may have on Eileen’s work over the long term – if any – but it is clearly an important and effective component now.
A slightly different example can be found in the one really dark poem in Peony:
Morning, Kookaburra Song
i.m. E.M. Kennedy (1932-2009)
It was dark this morning, Mister,
when I heard you, alone and keening,
laughing at the world with its funerals
and deaths, at its four presidents
in the one room.
You laughed at the priests in their unblemished
cassocks shot through with gold. You laughed
at the woman with the strong throat
from which issued a song practised
in chambers as hollow as our hearts.
You even laughed at the son who limped,
laughed at the memory of the child
who’d forgotten the mystery of walking
on two whole limbs. Mocked his false leg
smothered under fine, grey wool.
You picked out the woman so elegant
in her black grief. The pearls on her live skin
gleaming like teeth. The years she’d watched
her husband with one eye, both hands
cupping the fabric of their lives.
It was dark this morning, Mister,
but I heard you. I was awake in bed,
waiting. The man next to me lay deep
in sleep. But I knew your laughter
would come. I knew it would come.
It is a poem about how there is something in the world that laughs at everything we are moved by or find valuable, everything we strive to achieve. One of the things that makes it distinctive is its use of the kookaburra. Traditionally, the kookaburra’s laugh has been viewed as benign, as not breaking the communion of good fellowship. But this laughter does.This bird takes no prisoners: it has no respect, and no pity. I must admit, I have listened to kookaburras myself, and thought that their laughter was of a heavier character than was indicated, say, by a Lindsay cartoon. I never used it: no doubt I was a captive of the conventions. But Eileen has. And although, in itself, it’s a relatively small thing, it has added to the way in which we see the creatures around us, to the range of possibility they represent. Possibly, the fact that Eileen has been marginally less subject to customary Australian perspectives has been an advantage, allowing her to see something that people who have lived here all their lives may not have. Creative misreading, however, is one thing, but you have to be able to use it: this slight adjustment would have meant nothing if it hadn’t been accompanied by her sense of such an unforgiving perspective, by the dry and economical survey of the Kennedys, by the way the whole poem is grounded in her silent address to the bird. Out of it, she has produced a strong and disturbing poem – a poem that sticks in the mind precisely because the use to which the kookaburra’s laughter is put is just that one step away from conventional usage.
Sometimes, when a person goes to live in another culture, their head remains in the place from which they have come. Sometimes, their affiliations and perspectives realign with those of their new world. And sometimes, and most creatively, the act of entering a new land is like stepping onto a tightrope of the imagination, in which neither past nor present has been deleted – because good imaginations pay their respects wherever it needs to be paid. These poems, it seems to me, walk such a tightrope. On the one hand, there are the memories of Singapore, of family – and on the other, poems of the new life – of preparing food with friends, of Europe and of love.
The tightrope is a creative place, and I hope that Eileen continues to walk it. It has given us the poems of Peony; we will watch in anticipation to see where it may take her to next.
Congratulations to all involved, to the publishers, and above all, to the author.
May this peony flower for a long to come.
Martin Langford is the author of The Human Project: New and Selected Poems (Puncher and Wattmann, 2009) and the editor of Harbour City Poems: Sydney in Verse 1788-2008 (P&W, 2009). His new collection, Ground, will be published later in 2014.
Peony is available from http://pittstreetpoetry.com/eileen-chong/
Mark Roberts’ review of burning rice can be found here: https://rochfordstreetreview.com/2013/02/20/sweet-flesh-of-memory-mark-roberts-reviews-burning-rice-by-eileen-chong/
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Great review Martin!