Kim Cheng Boey Reviews Eileen Chong

By | 11 August 2014

Chong’s ability to fuse the dramatic, narrative and lyric in the balance of line and form – already much in evidence in Burning Rice – allows her to address complex issues in a beguilingly simple way. Her attentive eye fashions from a few concrete particulars a whole mood or situation, and mundane occasions can trigger off sensuous contemplations of love and belonging. In ‘Evensong’ the domestic act and a simple object furnish a sort of ars poetica, mediating the conflicting claims of poetry and domestic commitments, and assuaging the migrant woman poet’s burden of memory and heritage: ‘A poem is a heavy thing. It weighs/as you scrub the potatoes,/rub them with salt, then decide/to boil them instead.’ Culinary motifs, abundant in her debut collection, persist here, enacting the relationship between food, memory and identity. In ‘Rice-dumplings’ the poet and her friend are ‘Reviving the art/of rice-dumplings in an inner-city apartment in Sydney/five minutes’ walk from Chinatown.’ The poem celebrates the food of memory, the contradictions and am-bivalence of being Chinese migrants living in Chinatown captured in the act of food preparation and consumption, as they eat, ‘marvelling at our true selves, so far, yet so close to home.’ With subtle irony, the poem dramatises the complex sense of home and belonging.

Another food poem is ‘Noodles in Hong Kong’, where Hong Kong, China and Singapore come together in a moment of poetic gastronomy made possible by a bowl of wonton or ‘swallowing clouds noodles’. In Burning Rice, the culinary moments revolve around the binary of Singapore and Australia, with spatial memories focusing more on the place of birth. Peony rehearses this binary but the attention is more balanced, and the poems given a more transnational and transcultural spin. The first two sections of the collection are anchored in family history and Singapore, revisiting in memory the places of childhood and resurrecting the figure of the grandfather; and the Confucian reflex in ‘Chinese Wake’, ‘Kumquat’, ‘Death-Houses’ and ‘Release’ enacts rites concerning the dead, foregrounding the poet’s ethnic commitments. While the first half of Peony locates Chinese identity in a Singapore context, the second half is informed by a movement towards global citizenship, as the well-travelled poems cover Rome, Paris, New York and San Fran-cisco, providing a contrapuntal motif to the return to roots and origins.

This transnational or cosmopolitan spatiality reveals an attempt to transcend the Singapore/Australia binary, but the more engaging poems are those that are rooted in Australian locales, more precisely, Sydney’s cityscapes. ‘El-Alamein, Kings Cross’ offers a vivid snap-shot of the iconic fountain: ‘A single child dangles his hand in the water. Mist wets my face/ like a benediction. The seagull bows, then rises in a blur of wings.’ The photographic instant is captured with the visual precision and economy of language characteristic of Tang poetry. The poetry is also attentive to the marginalised: ‘In the corner old Nick kneels before his oiled/wood-box. Yesterday, his birthday; today/the cardboard sign reads only “Home-less/Shoe Shine”.’ This is the heartland of Chong’s second home, and she is staking out her place in these poems of urban topography. In another street poem, ‘The Way Back’, the poet joins a crowd listening to a girl grinding out ‘Waltzing Matilda’ on a music box and is trans-ported momentarily to her childhood in Singapore, before arriving at the realisation: ‘We ad-vance step by slow step, discarding memories like the way back./At some point you must know: the past can no longer be relieved.’ There is a refusal of nostalgia but the feeling of loss and longing abides.

The spatial poetics in Peony offers new readings of place that extend and at the same time disrupt the binaries of past/present, home/elsewhere, Singapore/Australia established in Burning Rice. The naturalness of form, the fusion of image and emotion, the arresting metaphor and phrasing, and the unpretentious language ensure that the themes of love and death, migration and displacement, identity and belonging, are never broached in a portentous way, but are implicit in the occasion and the observed detail. There is weight and heft of subject matter (‘A poem is a heavy thing’), but as with good lyric poetry there is also grace and lightness, like the glass-blower’s art described in ‘Glass-blowing’, where the artisan ‘catches in a gloved hand the clear glass globe/in which swirls a cerulean sea.’ Perhaps Chong’s greatest strength derives from the fact that she is not afraid of feeling, and of capturing it in fitting form and imagery. Li-Young Lee declares in an interview: ‘I value feeling. I think a lot of times in North American poetry there is not a value of feeling.’ This is what Chong’s work offers: a poetry of feeling, rendered in luminous detail and language, alive to the sorrows and joys of daily living.

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