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