“sparse versification and delicately restrained language”: Stephanie Dunk reviews ‘Painting Red Orchids’ by Eileen Chong

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

painting red orchidsEileen Chong’s third collection of poetry, Painting Red Orchids, contains fifty poems. The sparse versification and delicately restrained language rewards readers with at least as many jewels of insight. As the title suggests, this collection continues the poet’s concern with her heritage and family relations, but this experience is now filtered through a meditation on the act of creating.

The ancestors throughout the collection function as spiritual guides. In ‘Spirit’, moths are ‘left alone lest they were/ manifestations’ of the grandfather’s soul. Family is a cosmos, with ‘brother and sister, circling like moons’ in ‘Child’. A number of the poems consider dislocation from ancestors. One of the more enigmatic in the collection, ‘Weight’, is addressed to the persona’s ancestors and describes the burden of history, and the efforts of successive generations to lay the burden down, in whatever new place they find themselves. For the fathers and mothers, this involves body-twisting labour, ‘bent your back. You curved your hands’; the persona need only twist her fingers. The success of this labour is ambiguous, despite the initial declaration that the burden has been laid down, by the end, the ‘knot of knowing’ escapes like a ‘phoenix’s/ tail’. In the early poems, through the rebirth of family with each new generation, historical burdens seem inescapable.

The spiritual role of ancestors persists even in the failing of the flesh. ‘Revisit’ tenderly presents an afternoon with a grandmother. The first line, ‘My grandmother has not yet forgotten me’ sets a scene of quiet ageing. The poem observes the grandmother’s inability to make tea, and her unequal contribution to the conversation (‘she seems to agree’) with compassion, but more, it paints her as a seer, ‘She sees who I am, and who I am yet to be’. A mystic understanding is imputed to her, and the persona continues to interact with her wisdom. In a generous engagement with decline, the individuality of the first stanza is transformed into a collective identity, ‘She sees who we are, and who we are yet to be’. Even amidst the weakening, and the inevitable forgetting, grandmother and granddaughter are joined.

Ancestry, considered more broadly as culture, also finds its place. The titular poem of the collection, which was longlisted for the University of Canberra’s Vice-Chancellor’s Prize 2014, is a detailed study of Qing Dynasty painter Huang Shen at work. The first three stanzas catalogue the materials needed for the painting: brushes and inkstone, and the slow process of preparation. The fourth and final stanzas deftly portray the climactic moment of creation: ‘One stroke, one breath: leaves give way to blossom.’. This is the only poem in the collection where the poet assumes an obviously male persona, and one of the few that is set entirely in an imagined past. The artist in this poem is an idealised figure who is uncomplicatedly in the right place and time. Their family life and home is subservient to his craft. His wife has made ‘this paper with mulberry from our gardens’. He does not feel the burden of history. There is a menace over the poem in the form of a suicide, but even this is mined in service of the creative process. ‘The inkstone was my father’s: slate/ quarried from the lake where my great-grandfather/ drowned himself one spring night’ and contributes to the masterwork which is to come. The work of the artist in this poem is inevitable, external and traditional.

This artistic detachment is not mirrored in the more autobiographical poems. In ‘The Photograph in Australia’, (longlisted for the same prize in 2015) the mere viewing of art leads to a visceral experience; the persona must sit down and ‘try to breathe’. The plight of ancestors is also never treated so lightly, as in ‘Snow’, where in the middle of a seemingly innocuous recounting of a childhood experience of hot weather and cooling ice, a sudden break in time and place sees the persona giving a warning to her grandfather that can never be heeded: ‘You must never fall asleep/ in the snow. Your matches have run out,/ grandfather’. This tragedy is less well-defined than the suicide of the earlier poem and yet it interrupts and destroys, and the little girl of the poem cannot continue skipping in the heat, but instead falls, ‘I’ve bitten my tongue’.

Similarly, the artistic solitude of Huang Shen and his dedicated workplace are absent from the modern poems of the collection. In ‘Bee Music’, the persona is ‘reading poetry and drinking’, and in ‘Resonance’, she is ‘on the telephone/ with my lover – I have written a new poem and want/ to test its resonance’. The poems do not arise purely from internal artistic impulse but show Chong’s affective responses to sensory inputs, and the habits of her daily life. The epigraphs also demonstrate her engagement with a rich reading life. She situates herself epigraphically in a diverse array of artists including Singapore-born Australian poet Boey Kim Cheng, Tang Dynasty poet Du Fu, Irish poet Eavan Boland, and American poet Edna St Vincent Millay. She even takes a dream ‘Walk with Phil Levine’. That these poems are responsive to this wide cannon belies the simplicity of their structure and conceits, demonstrating an ability to catch the emotional truth in daily experiences and literature, and to relate the two.

Weaving throughout the collection are poems of loss, charting the end of relationships. On the surface, ‘Bloom’ purports to describe what can be seen on the street and in nearby houses from a favourite vantage point. By the final stanza, however, the persona has revealed that she knows too much about what is happening in the houses ‘just out of sight’ for it really to be about other people. It becomes, therefore, a daydream the length of a cigarette about the happiness of ‘last week’ in a relationship. In ‘Taboo’, the persona’s heart is withdrawn, in ‘Split Moon’ she ‘said the words and broke us’. The trajectory continues beyond the relationship. The list poem ‘Cooking for One’ contains a germ of acceptance, and ‘Fern’ presents a positive allegory of female companionship and slow unfurling growth.

With this growth comes a new love. Early dates are chronicled, and the new wonder of love (‘How did we find each other?’ in ‘Sun Ming Restaurant, Parramatta’) takes place amidst cultural and culinary exchange. They take each other to Chinese restaurants, and the persona teaches her lover to eat Little Dragon Dumplings. The growth of intimacy is deftly evoked in ‘Sunday Morning’ which wavers between the general and the specific and moves back and forth through a day to suggest a moment of inflection in the relationship, of moving towards greater commitment.

This love story, while a persistent theme, is sublimated to the tension between family and art. Towards the end of the collection, the spirits of the ancestors no longer hover explicitly, the first love has failed, the second love is young, and the persona has no offspring (looking at her arms in ‘Afternoons’ she thinks: ‘barren’). In the place of the ancestors and children, there arises a creative family. She takes a walk with a fellow poet, Lachlan Brown, and visits his family in ‘Murrumbidgee’ and ‘Family’. Lachlan presents a more carefree model of cultural engagement, he ‘has misspelled the name of a Chinese river/ in a poem’. He is also a foil for family life as the persona is welcomed into his bustling home for one evening – intimacy through commensality – but by the end she realises ‘it’s time to leave’.

This arc culminates in the final poem of the collection, ‘Last Night’, during which the persona, perhaps Chong herself, experiences a quietly hysterical epiphany at a poetry reading. Seated in the audience, she realises that ‘I might never see you again – / you or I might die before another meeting/ took place’. Universalising this theme, the persona then considers the future death of her poetry teacher and her poetry teacher’s husband, ‘And I wept’. It is telling that her morbid meditation takes her to this creative, rather than biological, mother and father. She clings to the hand of her lover and issues a benediction: ‘Bless all the ones we love, / the ones we once loved and will come to love, / even as we learn what it means to die and live again.’ This expansive blessing extends to the natural family, but is only possible while sitting in the ritualised trappings of the new self, situated within a creative family. Far from the contemplative, slow and individual art of Huang Shen, this is an artist situated in a modern creative community. Far from the interweaving of history and memory in the accounts of ancestry, this is an idealised, almost uncomplicated, love. The final poem reconciles the dissonance that has been ringing from the very first poem – the artist has found a place of belonging in her creative family.

– Stephanie Dunk


Stephanie Dunk has studied literature and business strategy. She is a PhD candidate researching the discursive construction of ethical food.

Painting Red Orchids by Eileen Chong is available from Pitt Street Poetry

Painting Red Orchids launched by Anna Kerdijk Nicholson at Gleebooks, Saturday, 16 April 2016

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