“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

Shining with Sensuality: Anna Kerdijk Nicholson launches ‘Painting Red Orchids’ by Eileen Chong

Painting Red Orchids by Eileen Chong’s was launched by Anna Kerdijk Nicholson at Gleebooks on 16 April 2016

Eileen ChongEileen Chong’s work—and this new collection, Painting Red Orchids—is lucid, refined and elegant.

Circumstance has allowed me to get to know Eileen Chong as a person, as well as an author. The circumstance—which you will grow to understand as you read through the poems in this work—was a difficult one for her and through it, we have become friends. Some months ago, Eileen said to me gravely: ‘Anna, I really don’t know whether I am a poet.’ In my view, this is preposterous. But I owe it to her and the work to be grave too, and offer her — and you — my formal response.

Eileen Chong’s poetic work suddenly existed in Australian poetry in 2009. Her work was born, it seems, fully formed. As I’ve read through her two previous books again in the lead up to this launch — Burning Rice from 2012 and Peony from 2014, it struck me again that the form of her work was, right from the first, considered, measured and placed. It is a measure of her craft that in these few years, Eileen’s work has been recognised in prestigious poetry prizes and has been sought out and commissioned.

Eileen came upon poetry when studying as a post-graduate at Sydney University. She took a subsidiary course in poetry, run by Judith Beveridge, thinking it would give her respite from academic study. But it was this decision, this side-step, which brought Eileen to her art form; and to one of its great teachers. It was also a fortuitous meeting, as Judy was a well-matched teacher for Eileen: they have a similar sensibility and aesthetic; and Eileen’s poetry has only ever known high-level craft as a result of Judy’s technical tutelage.

I am going to read you the first section of a poem called ‘Magnolia’ as an example of this porcelain crafting.


I rise from my pallet: it is still dark
and the men are asleep, their naked chests
inflating and collapsing like a smith’s bellows.

The moon hangs beneath the clouds: soon
autumn will arrive, winds rippling the fields.
Back in my village, the farmers are preparing

for the harvest. I press together strips of linen,
line it with moss I’d picked from the base of trees.
It is my time, and my secret. Tomorrow we advance

towards the border. The war-carts are loaded,
the horses will be tethered to their burdens.
Here the quivers of arrows wait to be spent.

I carry a skin of water and squat in the grasses.
Now it is safe to loosen my robes. Carefully, I clean myself.
Even in the dark, my hands are sticky with blood.

It’s written in three line stanzas throughout, looks neat and planned on the page, but I find no contrivance when the form is imposed over what is being expressed. Instead, the hard work is being quietly done in the lineation and enjambment. Firstly, at the line endings there is that almost imperceptible pause as the eye passes from the end of the line to the beginning of the next, giving the mind time to catch the meanings in the denseness of the words and images. Little pauses, minute emphases. Then, at the line beginnings, the continuation of the flow or the commencement of the next thoughts being worked out. Traditional poetic imagery is used in the early part of the poem —of the dark, the persona awake as others sleep, the moon and the onset of autumn. The descriptiveness coaxes us into the mood of being quiet among sleeping warriors only to discover the great secret of this poem that this ‘I’, this persona, this person, this warrior and leader of men, is menstruating. A woman hidden beneath robes in a man’s world. Subtly done, un-emphatic, nothing is overstated or overblown.

If I gave you the opportunity to read my scrawly handwriting in my journals, you would find I have copied down many definitions of ‘lyric poetry’. It is as though I collect them. Each definition differs from the others, each is sophisticated and conceptual. I keep collecting them because none really satisfies me. Yet, as I have been reading Painting Red Orchids, I have grasped that I am staring at lyric poetry. I am holding it my hand. There is in all the poems life intensely experienced. The poetry records the world mediated through the senses and the sense of the ‘I’, the person at the core of the experience and the understanding revealed by it. Even, as in ‘Magnolia’, biography and the move to the understanding of life’s patterning, is strong. As a body of work, now across all the three books, there is an autobiographical thread. The personal poems can be read almost like an autobiographical fleuve (akin to a roman fleuve), you gain an understanding of the pattern of the poet’s life.

Xiao Long Bao (Little Dragon Dumplings)

Behind the glass, men and women dressed like surgeons
(masks across their faces, hair tucked under caps)
roll out pastry into circles on a floured bench-top.

Cool hands: they cup the skin of each dumpling
in one palm then spoon a perfectly shaped
dollop of spiced pork into the middle

then deftly, invisibly, stretch the pastry and pinch
the top shut in a series of fan-folds. Sixteen creases
form the crest of each dumpling; eight dumplings

to a bamboo steamer lined with a cabbage leaf.
Circular trays stacked nine tall, straddling a wok
of boiling water, steamed for exactly eleven minutes.

Finely shredded young ginger topped
with black rice vinegar and a dash of soy
form the dipping sauce. I teach you

how to lift each dumpling carefully with chopsticks
into your Chinese spoon, to dress each morsel
with stained ginger, to bite through its skin with the tips

of your front teeth and suck out the hot soup
from the dumpling before placing it into your mouth.
I still remember the look on your face when you ate
your first little dragon dumpling. Sudden understanding.

The exactness of the method of making the dumplings is a nice metaphor for the making of the poem. Again the favoured 3 line stanzas but ending here with the weightier 4 line stanza. That single extra line permits time for the appreciation of the effect of the initiation on ‘the other’ in the poem and for the resonance of the poem to evolve from the lyric personal to the sharing of culture. That resonance is the ‘ah ha’ moment which we hear from an audience at the end of a good poem.

Life being lived so close to the senses, there is occasionally in the poems the awareness of violence. Somehow, the poetic beauty in the work is heightened by gritty, ugly reality: the death of a beloved cat, stones cutting unwary feet, a mother’s endless grief over a miscarriage, the pain of being unable to bear children. In ‘Spirit’, we enter into the family’s home in Singapore —


We are far away in a country
with no name. Footprints

in flour appear out of thin air,
pointed in one direction, come

to partake of the offerings
at the altar. It is said that cats

can see spirits as solid
as living men. In a dream I saw

my grandfather unable to enter
our home, mirror above the door

deflecting his immateriality.
Moths landing on walls

were left alone lest they were
manifestations of his soul.

The canal behind the apartment
carried along all manner of things.

Once I saw a dog fallen
down the steep concrete sides –

dead before or drowned after
I do not know. Bent neck. Broken back.

The narrator of the film Amadeus, the court composer Antonio Salieri, is asked to comment on a work a youthful Mozart has just played to their patron. Salieri’s critique is that the piece has ‘too many notes’. To paraphrase Mozart’s retort in the film, these poems have neither too many words, nor too few. They are composed and shining with sensuality and a latent eroticism.


“White dew covers the front courtyard
and dark descends silently over the chrysanthemums”.
 ………………………………………….– ‘New Moon’, Du Fu
Tonight, a sickle hangs in the sky.
The garden across the street is empty.
No lovers stand under the trees.

Last week, I watched a window
that framed a kitchen. Two young men
were vigorously making pasta: kneading,

rolling, cutting. A girl in a thin dress
ribboned their efforts on a stick.
Just out of sight, steam billowed

from a half-lidded pot. Two buildings away,
a man was removing the top from a woman.
Behind them, a room lit only by the flicker

of a television screen. Her breasts were small,
her stomach soft. He bent her over, slowly,
and buried his face in her sumptuous, pink skirt.

The metal rail is cold under my forearms.
I have finished my cigarette. Across
the street: only shadows and fallen blooms.

There is a telling little epigraph, in Eileen’s poem ‘Seven in the Bamboo’, from Raquel Ormella: ‘I worried I’m not political enough’. I have thought about Eileen choosing this ostensibly self-disparaging quote. In the poem, she traces the kind of day she might have, waking and putting on her clothes and walking to the water’s edge, sitting and facing the water and thinking and watching the clouds and the trees. She says of herself: ‘I don’t think about refugees or dead babies or chemical warfare or Iraq or Israel’. But then she offers these stanzas to conclude the poem —

I worry I live under a rock
even as my mind winds up the wooded paths and streams

of third-century China. I imagine I am packing a frame-
and-cloth bag full of books and two changes of clothes

for a long journey into the mountains. Seven of us meet
in a bamboo grove. Two of us make love in the moonlight

after we are all drunk from pots of rice wine. Someone watches
us, but we don’t care. We forget about society, about politics,

about government. We sow, we grow, we reap. We dream, we read,
we write, we paint. The notes of the zither shiver in the night air.
 ……………………………………..– From ‘Seven in the Bamboo’

I think this conclusion stands in defence of the lyric as she writes it and as a defence of her poetry as a whole. She writes poems which are artefacts. I hope, like the 300 year old bonsai pine she refers to in the poem Orchidaceae Vanda ‘Miss Joaquim’, they will survive and live on and she will craft more in the decades to come.

I invite you to take home with you a copy of Painting Red Orchids. I would like you to read the poems in it and determine for yourselves whether Eileen Chong is indeed, really, a poet. I think you know my opinion but I’m sure she would like to hear from others, so write to her and tell her what you think. In my view, this book is another of Eileen’s exquisite pieces of art.

 – Anna Kerdijk Nicholson


Anna Kerdijk Nicholson’s book, Possession (5 Islands Press 2010) , won the Victorian Premier’s Prize for Poetry and the Wesley Michel Wright Prize and was shortlisted for the NSW and ACT Premier’s Prizes for Poetry. Her latest collection, Everyday Epic, was published by Puncher and Wattmann and was launched by Judith Beveridge  https://rochfordstreetreview.com/2016/04/20/a-resonance-that-lingers-judith-beveridge-launches-everyday-epic-by-anna-kerdijk-nicholson/

Painting Red Orchids is available from http://pittstreetpoetry.com/eileen-chong/