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.

Magnolia

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 —

Spirit

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.

Bloom

“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

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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/

A resonance that lingers: Judith Beveridge launches ‘Everyday Epic’ by Anna Kerdijk Nicholson

Everyday Epic by Anna Kerdijk Nicholso, Puncher and Wattmann 2015, was launched by Judith Beveridge at the Rosie Scott Women Writers’ Festival on 18th September 2015.

everyday_epic_310_437_sI’m delighted to be launching Anna Kerdijk­Nicholson’s Everyday Epic and I’d like to congratulate her on this fine new volume as well as the publisher, Puncher and Wattmann, for another terrific addition to contemporary Australian poetry.

As the title suggests, this book has a wide­-ranging, grand scope to it – the poems cover a rich variety of subjects: from personal poems, poems about landscape and urban settings, poems about art and art­works, both historical and contemporary, poems with current social and political content, as well as the final and climatic, historical series on Burke and Wills.

This book values and celebrates both the large and the ordinary, travelling outwards into politics, history and culture, yet coming back to the everyday personal worlds of love, suffering, injustice. Though the book is wide in scope, it is not a baggy book. The poems feel necessary and are beautifully honed, they have a sharpness of mind, a penetrating focus of image and diction, a resonance that lingers. And this is important because so many poems, while they can be arresting and alluring during the reading of them, seem to dissolve or evaporate in the mind once your eyes leaves the page – Anna’s don’t do this, they have an astringency that hangs around, an allure that stays with you, and this is an effect of the craft: the way Anna has been able to weigh her words with intense thought and chose them with subtle and powerful discrimination.

One poem I’ll read to illustrate this is the poem “Desert” – (p. 63). This poem has terrific economy while saying a lot, which is what all the best poems do. I love the way the word “murders” at the end of the first line can be read as belonging to “wildflower” as in “allows wildflower murders”, yet as you read the next line you realize “murders” belongs to “murders the momentary”. This playful slippage, of keeping the language moving and dynamic, of constantly surprising the reader is another hallmark of the book. I love the way Anna bends her language and sometimes her syntax to achieve many windfalls. The last stanza in “Desert” is beautifully constructed as Anna takes advantage of the double meaning of “magazine” as in glossy publication, but also as in its meaning as a receptacle that holds the cartridges to be fed into a gun. This sense is picked up and amplified in the last line by “triggers Intervention” – there are so many little nuances of meaning in the poem and they delight you as they invite you to tease them out.

Anna’s poems kept me delightfully engaged with the way the imagery and tone negotiate the very subtle changes of mood or modes of feeling. These poems have that admirable ability to grow in intensity out of their own emotional necessity; these poems seem to rise to discoveries of ­ and are themselves – epiphanies. Take for example the poem “Bangarra” (p. 79) – I love the way this poem so wonderfully combines a sense of stillness and movement in describing the dance, that seamless bringing together of opposites creates a lasting impression, all done through the crystalline images.

What there is in spades in this book is a compassionate sense and sympathy for the effects of injustice and wrong-­treatment metered out to the less powerful. Anna writes movingly and convincingly about the plight of refugees, of the suffering of indigenous people, exemplified in her three­-poem sequence which looks at two photos and one painting of Truganini. But perhaps the most powerful of all in the book is the last section called “The Factitious Tragedy of Burke and Wills” – a sequence of eight poems of emotional and graphic intensity which depicts the disintegration through starvation of members of the Burke and Wills expedition. In just eight poems Anna gives the reader what it might take a prose account several chapters to do – the selection of detail, the narrative pacing, the characterisation are all magnificently drawn. Anna really makes us feel the tension and the uneasiness, the tragedy at the heart of this story.

But the poem I’d to finally read is called “Foucault’s Pendulum” (p. 89) – the way the poem handles time I think is terrific, the present and past come into beautiful conjunction through the watching of a flitter­bat – which brings into the speaker’s mind memories of a museum in Holland which house a Foucault’s Pendulum and a colony of pipistrelles. I love the backward lean of the poem into memory, and then the forward stepping into the kinesethetic and visual movements of the flitter­bat. The images and details are orchestrated so well, the long, slowly­ moving, fluent lines feel like time swinging back and forth. This is a finely textured, superbly wrought piece which I urge you to re­read in order to fully appreciate the way the connections are braided seamlessly together, how Anna has brought the disparate and multiple qualities into a unified whole.

In this poem, as in others, there is a real subtlety of thinking. Jane Hirshfield in her wonderful book on poetry, Ten Windows, says “It is by and in its subtleties that a good poem is able both to answer uncertainty and to contain it” (p.131). She says “Subtle thinking liberates its subject from the expected and the assumed, from arrogance and the ordinary versions of what is thought true” (p. 130).

I think it’s true to say that poetry always returns to the inner, private life, to the hidden feeling, the buried motive, to the details that embody emotion. Each poet for us defines a world and it is important for us as readers to be exposed to as many of these differing worlds as we can. The Russian poet Andrei Voznesensky has said, “Languages are many but poetry is one”. Anna, in this latest volume Everyday Epic, has found a convincing and rich poetry that makes us feel welcome and makes us value the work that poetry does, which is to say things with a “passionate syntax” on the margins of the sayable and allow readers to become participants in their own relationship to the world.

 – Judith Beveridge

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Judith Beveridge is the author of The Domesticity of Giraffes, Accidental Grace, Wolf Notes and Storm and Honey all of which have won major prizes. Her latest collection, Devadatta’s Poems, was published by Giramondo Publishing in 2014 and Hook and Eye, a selected of her poems, was published by Brazilier Publishers in the USA. She is the poetry editor for Meanjin and teaches poetry writing at postgraduate level at the University of Sydney.

Everyday Epic is available on the Puncher and Wattmann website: https://puncherandwattmann.com/books/book/everyday-epic