Siobhan Hodge Reviews Eileen Chong

26 September 2012

The final stanza outlines the greatest preoccupation in this poem, as the speaker outwardly admits her lack of knowledge about her inheritance: ‘I wonder where / our bloodline begins’. The desire to identify an origin point, from which to create all reference, is repeated throughout Chong’s collection, but as this poem suggests, this is easier imagined than achieved in reality.

However, the pessimism of the ending to ‘My Hakka Grandmother’ is essentially refuted by the body of the poem itself, a self-conscious twist that is mirrored in the rest of Chong’s work. The claim that ‘We are guest people / without land or name’ is inherently untrue, since the speaker has already established both in the poem’s title and second stanza. It is the illusion of separation that has created this anxiety, and has also generated this imagined exchange. Chong does not colour this poem entirely with nostalgia and diasporic intent, but tempers this with initiative on the speaker’s behalf, reaching for memories and generating new memories to accommodate for those lost or unavailable.

Chong not only explores connections between her speaker and family members, but also extends her reach to include conversations between famous literary and historical figures. In the poem ‘Lu Xun, your hands’, the speaker imagines speaking with and making love to the famous Chinese writer, framing the poem with an epigraph written by Xu Guangping, his wife, in which she questions him: “But as you look up and inhale the intoxicating smoke from your tobacco, can you spare a thought for those scrambling to find a way out of this nest of scorpions?” Issues of responsibility and a need for compassion are presented in this poem, steeped in physicality and sensuous descriptions:

Lu Xun, your hands
are clasped behind your back,
across the black silk
of your scholar’s dress. My eyes trace the length
of your fingers encircling your wrist. Tonight,
Lu Xun, your hands will drag
their heavy, eloquent path across
my milk-soft skin. Your mouth will cease
to form words like liberty, ideology,
and compassion, but will instead silently
enclose the peach blossoms 
of my breasts.

Activity and physicality dismiss but then invite artistic and literary expression. The irony is not lost on the speaker, as she describes the new form of creation that has emerged from her union with Lu Xun. While the speaker does not voice the same outward criticism of Lu Xun’s distance from reality in favour of scholarship as Xu Guangping does in the epigraph, she imagines enforcing a more human side on the scholar, linking physicality with art as well as political terminology.

As in ‘My Hakka Grandmother’, Chong’s speaker skilfully steers the imagined figure to comply with her desires, but this time in order to create a tangible link between Lu Xun and his wife, his ideas and their realisation. Rather than destabilise the cherished reputation of this famous literary figure, Chong engages directly with her representation of him and gently enforces a more human element to his scholarly pursuits. Representative of the poet’s engagement with established literary canon as a whole, ‘Lu Xun, your hands’ infuses criticism with a lively, bodily presence, assisting in – rather than completely changing – the means of criticism.

On a personal level I have found Chong’s Burning Rice particularly enjoyable due to my own experiences, as a Hong Kong resident who frequently travels away from Hong Kong as a point of origin. Chong’s portrayal of Singapore and China’s Fujian province as origin points, dipping occasionally towards nostalgia, but always pulling the focus back to more self-conscious critique, is simultaneously refreshing and familiar.

Burning Rice is a sensitive collection that seeks to create connections between generations and countries on a personal level, tapping into the nostalgic but subtly critical thoughts of the first-person speaker via selective imagery and structure. Chong’s presentation of simple, direct and emotive images of comfort food, shared knowledge, human bodies and remembered places appeal to the senses on a personal level, but also invite broader critique of diasporic separation, familial disintegration, loss of culture and longing for connection in general.

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About Siobhan Hodge

Siobhan Hodge has a PhD in English literature. Her thesis focused on Sappho’s legacy in English translations. Born in the UK, she divides her time between Australia and Hong Kong. Her chapbook of reflections on Sappho, Picking Up the Pieces, was published in 2012 as part of the Wide Range Chapbooks series. She is currently the Reviews Editor for Writ Review and an Associate Editor for Rochford Street Review. She has had critical and creative works published in a range of places, including Westerly, Axon, Contrapasso, Peril, Plumwood Mountain.

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