Wedged Between the Old and the New
Painting Red Orchids
by Eileen Chong
Pitt Street Poetry
Published April, 2016
by Eileen Chong
Pitt Street Poetry
Published May, 2018
At Mamak Restaurant in Chinatown, which draws long lunch and dinner queues because it reputedly serves the most authentic Singapore and Malaysian fare in Sydney, we sit over our plates of mee goreng, a Malay-Indian dish that I crave in my moments of homesickness. The fried noodles are tasty, still, not quite the mee goreng of home; but migrant hunger will settle for an acceptable approximation. Eileen Chong approves, and her delight is complete when our frothy classes of teh tarik arrives, a sort of tea equivalent of cappuccino.
We have just met. She introduced herself at the Sydney Writers Festival, at the end of a reading I shared with Adam Aitken and Judith Beveridge. It is remarkable how quickly strangers can connect, and much more readily if they are migrants who share a similar background. We escaped from the literary crowds and made our way to Chinatown in the winter drizzle.
A week later a letter arrives. Eileen’s neat handwriting explains how our encounter had sparked off her poem ‘Winter Meeting’. It records the meeting of two migrants, two writers embarked on a similar diasporic path: ‘In the tepid winter sun we walk briskly/to catch a bus to Chinatown, my footfall/ten years behind yours’. It is an early poem, but the preoccupations that have come to define Chong’s voice and style are already present: friendship, migration and its corollary motifs of homesickness, loneliness and alienation, friendship (personal and literary), family and heritage, Tang poetry and inevitably Chinese culture and food:
Inside, surrounded by smells of home, my tongue loosens
then slips into cadences of Singlish. I tell you of the afternoons
my grandmother fried sambal belachan in the house. You wrinkle
your nose: these memories need neither grammar
nor elaboration. You offer me an antidote for sadness:
recite Wang Wei, Du Fu, Meng Haoran. But where you go
I cannot follow – I lost the language years ago. Outside,
the rain has stopped. We drink our tea and split the bill.
Also already quite fully formed are the trademark lyrical voice, wistful, yearning but unsentimental, the precisely honed words, the delicately tuned cadences, the carefully weighed line, the compact but fluid and lucid stanzas. The poem is firmly anchored in a narrative context, a mundane urban setting firmly fleshed out with sharp visual details and a sensuous empathy attuned to the nuances of human interaction.
This ability to plant the poem in everyday concrete milieu has served Chong well in her development and quest for poetic theme and voice. In her fidelity to the real, and her attentiveness to the quotidian, to what can be grasped, experienced, and perhaps known, she stands apart from many of her more experimental contemporaries with their avoidance or fear of narrative, or anything with a whiff of sentimentality. Unlike Asian Australian poets like Bella Li and Ivy Alvarez, who eschew inflections of identity politics through strategies of fracture, discontinuity and obliquity, Chong boldly embraces the empirical with her vivid mappings of experience and memory. Unafraid to take on familiar diasporic themes like loss and displacement, migration and belonging, she steers clear of essentialist abstractions of identity politics with her unerring grasp of particulars, her ability to capture the hacceity of each object, the nuances of human interactions, and render the complex depths of the lyrical moment with plain but precise and resonant words. Another early poem, ‘Evensong,’ embodies Chong’s concrete poetics:
A poem is a heavy thing. It weighs
as you scrub the potatoes,
rub them with salt, then decide
to boil them instead. A poem
is a heavy thing.
The heft of feeling and thought is rendered palpable through the lineation, the accented monosyllabic words, and the grounding in the domestic context:
When your husband comes
home from work, you think
man, labour, dust, evensong
as he kisses you and asks
how your day was. Heavy,
you tell him. Heavy.
There is an implicit dramatic and narrative context enacting the conflicting role between housewifely duties and the demands of poetry, but the poem never presses its feminist theme; instead, it lets the action and imagery travel through the culinary motif to rest in the monosyllabic closing line, where the weight of the theme becomes fully realised. The cadenced flow of plain earthy words, the controlled use of concrete nouns (Williams’ ‘no ideas but in things’), and the understated narrative will be more developed in Chong’s subsequent work.
The intersection of the domestic with the aesthetic is again fertile ground in Chong’s third collection Painting Red Orchids, particularly in ‘A Winter’s Night,’ where the culinary motif allows a rich layering of themes: family, love, migrant histories and cooking process as a paradigm for writing:
What would you like for dinner? I asked.
Scotch broth, he says. And so I peel potatoes,
parsnips and swedes; I chop onions, celery,
and leeks. I season and roast lamb shanks,
then add everything into a pot and cover it
with stock. Now to simmer for hours,
or as he said, to Cook the hell out of it.
It reads like a Carver short story, beginning in medias res, the domestic interior juxtaposed with the lover’s train commute, the poem easing home in the last scene:
When we sit down to eat he speaks
of his grandmother’s Scotch broth
and tells me he feels like he is in Scotland.
This, here, made from my hands,
his memories – we consume spoon after spoon
of history and desire and laugh about the future.
In Chong’s hands, the Scotch broth undergoes a translation, the recipe combines the different diasporic histories, and is remade into a hybrid and fusion dish that speaks to the past as well as the future. Food, it is a truism, brings people together in the global age, and at a personal level, it reconciles and speaks to the changing and translated nature of migrant identity, and this is enacted again and again in Chong’s writing.
Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you who you are, Brillat-Savarin boasts. Much has been written about the literature of cooking and eating since Proust’s famous madeleine episode, but one cannot overstate the importance of food to ethnic identity and family history in Chinese culture. The Chinese thinker Lin Yutang declares that ‘if there is anything the Chinese are serious about, it is neither religion nor learning, but food.’ Painting Red Orchids, like Chong’s previous collections Burning Rice and Peony, is generously stocked with culinary motifs. Lin also observes: ‘What is patriotism but the love of food one ate as a child.’ In Chong’s first two collections, the food poems nostalgically replicate recipes of family and ethnic cooking, especially her grandmother’s; this the migrant writer’s instinct, to restore and revive what has been lost, and to bring the past into alignment with the new narrative. While Chong’s earlier cooking poems rehearse traditional recipes and affirm ancestral knowledge and familial heritage, recalling the tastes of home left behind, the food poems in Painting Red Orchids evoke the new life and relationships the poet has discovered in her adopted country.
‘Xiao Long Bao (Little Dragon Dumplings)’ and ‘Sun Ming Restaurant, Paramatta,’ together with ‘A Winter’s Night’ form a trio of poems conflating food with love. The first celebrates the popular Shanghainese dumpling, Chong’s verbal dexterity mimicking the skill in crafting the dumpling, the hands that ‘stretch the pastry and pinch/ he top shut in a series of fan-folds.’ It is in the eating, the ingestion that the dumpling releases its secret, the hidden broth bursting on the tongue, as the poet’s lover is instructed ‘to bite through its skin with the tips/of your front teeth and suck out the hot soup . . .’ The gustatory experience triggers a visceral epiphany that is also a moment of cross-cultural connection and understanding that transcends language: ‘I still remember the look on your face when you ate/ our first little dragon dumpling. Sudden understanding.’
Chong’s gastronomic poetics often operates in an urban milieu, in inner-city enclaves like the Sydney Chinatown, where the displaced diasporic subject discovers moments of connection and homecoming, and more specifically in restaurants, where the acts of eating, sharing and experiencing food can bring about a new knowledge of reality. In ‘Sun Ming Restaurant, Parramatta’ the poet and her lover walk through ‘an unfamiliar cityscape’ and enter a Cantonese restaurant, fronted by ‘gleaming roast ducks,/ golden soya chickens/ juicy barbequed pork.’ It is a liminal moment as they ‘cross the threshold into Hong Kong.’ Both are migrants in the Cantonese setting, and strangers too, the poet’s Chinese ethnicity notwithstanding; here in the liminal and transformative setting, their diasporic histories converge in the language of food and love:
How did we find each other
in this faceless city, on this wide continent,
coming as we did from worlds so far apart?
I eat my congee with sliced pork liver
and a raw egg; he tucks into a bowl of noodles
with crisp duck on a place. We share hot tea, spinach
with three kinds of egg, and learn a new rhythm.
Chong’s first two collections focus on the food of memory and the memory of food, the culinary and gustatory processes evoking the past, and the poet’s Chinese, or more specifically Hakka heritage. They are informed by a sense of guilt and betrayal at leaving home, as well as a sense of loss and displacement of the immigrant. These food poems in Painting Red Orchids show an agency of transformation and reinvention, crafting new cultural hybridized spaces where the poet can articulate and affirm her new life and identity.
The epigraph that prefaces the poem reveals the immediate influence behind the poem, Li-Young Lee’s justly famous ‘The Cleaving,’ and acknowledges the Asian American poet’s presence as an exemplar. Culinary and alimentary themes and motifs abound in Asian American literature, allow for an visceral or corporeal way of engaging with issues of politics, culture, gender, race and ethnicity, and Lee’s seminal poem ‘The Cleaving’ is one of the first to deploy the food trope extensively, and his lyrical evocations of meals prepared and consumed are moving works of memory, mediating between the past and present, heritage and loss, solitude and family. Poems like ‘Eating Alone’ and ‘Eating Together’ cannot be dismissed as mere exercises in ethnic gastronomy; they transcend circumstantial detail to convey universal feelings of loss and familial bond and love. Lee’s long poem ‘The Cleaving,’ is set in Chicago Chinatown, and like Chong’s ‘Sun Ming Restaurant, Parramatta,’ begins with a familiar tableau of roast ducks and barbeque hung in the window of a Chinese butcher, but expands outwards in a poetics of heterogeneity and inclusiveness, as it surveys the ethnic spectrum of Chineseness and locates it in the context of American multi-racialism:
The deaths at the sinks, those bodies prepared
for eating, I would eat,
and the standing deaths
at the counters, in the aisles,
the walking deaths in the streets,
the death-far-from-home, the death-
in-a-strange-land, these Chinatown
deaths, these American deaths.
Eating is a powerful metaphor that allows Lee and Chong to articulate their migrant outsiderness, and the alienating, at times crushing sense of exilic displacement; the culinary and alimentary tropes negotiating the dialectic between the cultural border-zones where cross-cultural interaction and translation takes place. In Chong’s earlier poems, food provides a stay against displacement and homelessness, the cooking and eating arousing and at the same time placating pangs of nostalgia and belonging. Recipes are part of the cultural and ethnic heritage, restoring for the migrant a sense of family and belonging.
‘Family’ in Painting Red Orchids rewrites the equation between food and family. Food becomes the locus for understanding and extending the idea of family, creating human empathy and connection for navigating the liminal spaces that migration has opened up. In ‘Family’ the poet is invited to the home of a fellow poet Lachlan Brown, who is of mixed parentage, whose hybrid makeup is described in another poem (‘Murrumbidgee’) thus: ‘His Chineseness is blurred at the edges’ and he ‘sits comfortably in his Australianness.’ The vignette or tableau unfolds like a short story, providing snapshots of a family and inscribing its diasporic history within the domestic space:
Lachlan’s house smells like home.
His mother has been cooking. I step
into the kitchen – steamed chicken on a platter,
clear soup on the boil, ginger scenting the air.
The olfactory and culinary details usher in a moment of cultural affiliation and identification, and for the duration of the visit, the poet experiences a sense of homecoming, of acceptance and belonging, as she crosses the threshold into self-forgetting rapport with the family. With narrative restraint and economy of language, Chong evokes the hybrid milieu, the way the Chineseness sits comfortably, in translated incarnation, almost at home, in the presence of Australian family. At this point, Chong’s work moves from a project of reclaiming heritage to discovering new affiliations and attachments: ‘We sit and eat – /for a few hours, I am family.’
However, such feelings of affiliations and home-finding are at best fleeting. ‘Family’ ends with an image of aloneness: ‘I watch the sun set outside, and realise it’s time to leave.’ The hybrid space and identity construct the poem discovers can be empowering and enhancing but they can also be precarious, indeterminate and alien. Eventually, the inescapable fact of dislocation, loneliness, and the solitary status of the diasporic subject assert themselves. ‘Cooking for One,’ echoing Li-Yong Lee’s ‘Eating Alone,’ is distinct from Chong’s other food poems in its stark menu: ‘Things you can cook for one: a bowl/of somen noodles. A single egg. Asparagus/salad with curled trout.’ Conspicuously absent is any elaborate Chinese cuisine or ethnic flavouring, and any human warmth and companionship that make the other meals meaningful and memorable.
Unlike the second or third-generation migrant writers, first-generation migrant writers feel the tug of the old home, the call of the lives and memories left behind, especially if they are adult migrants. They inhabit or navigate a liminal world, an in-between zone of vanished or vanishing memories and new experiences. Painting Red Orchids, more than Chong’s first two collections, swings between the states of loss and discovery, and between connection and crushing loneliness. In ‘Cobbler’ the poet sees herself as being ‘wedged between the old and the new’ and in ‘Adrift’ the transaction with ‘the mussel man’ in a fish shop releases a silent cry: ‘I need all the blessing I can get – /I am adrift, far from rock and shore.’
These feelings of alienation and loss precipitate various homecoming strategies, such as a return poem, where on visit to Singapore, the poet realises that
In my old country there is no one
left to call. A man stands in the roof
of a bumboat: he mops every square inch fastidiously.
I wave, but he won’t look at me: I simply do not exist.
Emigration exacts its costs: the loss of the original homeland and the attendant birth-right of selfhood and belonging. In the works of Asian American poets like Shirley Geok-lin Lim and Li-Young Lee, there is a Confucian reflex, a reverence of ancestral memories of grandparents and values. Ancestral figures also abound in Chong’s work; her Hakka grandmother especially is a recurrent figure. Here the imagery of her grandmother has a spectral quality. ‘Harbour’ gives a haunting picture of her, the use of the present tense and the vivid imagery belying the pastness of the portrait. ‘Revisit’ is a villanelle with the haunting refrain ‘My grandmother has not yet forgotten me,’ the tone of regret and pain inflected by tension between memory and forgetting. The emotional intensity of the two poems is barely reined in by the plain language and the characteristic understatement.
A corollary of Chong’s familial and ethnic narrative is her invocation of Chinese history and literature. In Peony she invoked the Chinese floral emblem and there are multiple references to Chinese culture and literature. Painting Red Orchids continues the discovery of sustaining emblems of tradition and heritage for the poet, whose act of emigration has compelled a return to her roots and origins. ‘Magnolia’ is a dramatic monologue centred on the legendary Tang Dynasty woman-warrior Hua Mulan (Chinese for magnolia), who disguised herself and enlisted in the army in lieu of her father. Chong’s empathy and deft handling of narrative allows her to inhabit the character, and depict the reality behind the myth: ‘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.’ In Peony Chong has deployed the dramatic monologue to great effect, namely through the person of the wife of Lu Xun, China’s most famous twentieth-century writer. These impersonations of historical and literary women figures ventriloquize Chong’s concern with the marginalization of women’s voices in Chinese literature and culture.
The engagement with Chinese heritage is most successful in the titular poem, inspired by the a painting of red orchids by the Qing Dynasty painter Huang Shen. Unlike previous dramatic monologues featuring female characters, Chong takes on the male painter’s voice. As he lays out his ink art, he is articulating the spontaneous aesthetics behind Chinese ink painting as much as formulating the poetics that Chong’s poetry aspires to. In Huang Shen’s painting, the images of the flower and leaves seem attached to the calligraphed quatrain that the painter had composed, the last two lines of which are cited as epigraph to Chong’s poem:
The newly-ripe cherries scatter like coins of elm seeds.
It is also April in Yangzhou.
Last night red orchids in the thatched hut burst into blossom.
Worrying about the wind and rain, unable to sleep.
The organic composition of the painting and poem reflects the Tang Dynasty aesthetic principle that was first applied to the Tang poet-painted Wang Wei: ‘In painting there is poetry, in poetry there is painting.’ Chong’s homage to Huang Shen is also an ekphrastic affirmation of the virtues of classical Chinese art and poetry, rooted in the balance between restraint and spontaneity, between premeditation and natural flow. The poet here becomes the painter, Chong’s imaginative empathy and keen eye for detail evoking the poet and his artistic process:
Pine oils diffuse into the room. My wife has made
this paper with mulberry from our garden. I lift
my brush, pull back my sleeve and saturate the hairs.
One stroke, one breath: leaves give way to blossom.
More water – rain and cloud above the trees.
Cochineal paste, jade seal – red orchids bloom on white.
The poem embodies the exemplary virtues of classical Chinese art and poetry, which Chong has sought to emulate: the balance between the descriptive and narrative, the reliance on concrete nouns, the lucid verbal action, the compressed and resonant diction, the control of emotion and thought through understatement. Aptly, Huang Shen’s wife is pivotal to the ink alchemy of his calligraphic art, the flat declarative statement belying the importance of her role. The floral choice is vital too; its emblematic resonance is enhanced in ‘Orchidaceae: Vanda ‘Miss Joaquim’’, which is an arresting take on the genesis of Singapore’s national flower, a hybrid cultivated by the eponymous horticulturalist. The last lines of the poem subvert the national symbol by highlighting its mixed and confused origins: ‘The heart of the flower/is the misnamed woman. Solitary, flourishing/in full sunlight, forced to live on always.’
In her quest for a poetic voice to redefine and reinvent herself as an Asian Australian writer, Chong has drawn on classical Chinese influences, and sought to weave them with a range of western voices. Painting Red Orchids is rich in intertextuality, and freely acknowledges sources and exemplars, not only from the east, but also from the west. Perhaps the American poets invoked here – Philip Levine, Sharon Olds, Louise Glück – have more in common with the Tang poets than is discernible at first glance. These are largely autobiographical poets who mine experience and memory for poetic material, all congruent with Chong’s poetic orientation. Their use of plain language, the reliance on concrete contexts and mundane situations, the emphasis on verbal action and reliance on imagistic nouns to effect the art of showing, not telling, are also the repertoire of the Tang poets. These are in abundant evidence in Chong’s elegy for Philip Levine ‘A Walk with Philip Levine’, nods to Levine’s ‘A Walk with Tom Jefferson’. As the two poets walk through the streets of Brooklyn, we are given snapshot glimpses of the poet who valorised the working class and staked out the industrial heartland of Detroit as his poetic demesne; there are intimate details of ‘his hands: that are ‘soft, a writer’s hands’ but ‘peel back the layers and there are the calluses, / remnants from days and nights in the factories.’ The poem’s narrative progression through space, its earthy and plain language, and the attention to the everyday, especially to life on the streets, these all are homage to Levine’s influence. Another Levine touch is the dream-like aura that present tense gives, suggesting his continuing tutelary role in Chong’s growth as a poet, as they arrive at Levine’s apartment: ‘The doorbell is shiny brass and in my dream/ I reach out and press the button. Something rings/ in the distance, rings unanswered, and keeps ringing.’
Rainforest reinforces the international orientation of Chong’s poetry and extends her dialogic interaction with literary influences. Tang and American poets are again convened as sponsoring influences, and the bridging and marrying of east and west is augmented by the compass trope that shapes the structure and direction of the work. The cardinal points give the themes and motifs a coherent geographical arrangement, perhaps a little too neatly, sacrificing the more fluid, organic and seamless sequencing in previous collections. The quadripartite structure betrays a need to transcend the binary of Australia/Singapore which has informed Chong’s work, and which she has sought to unsettle and bypass with a shift to an international outlook or a transnational poetics. ‘East’ obviously brackets poems exploring the poet’s roots and origins while ‘South’ is anchored in Australia. ‘West’ and ‘North’ are loosely based on travels in the western and northern hemispheres.
More than Chong’s previous works, Rainforest engages in a spatial poetics that reveals an anxiety or unease about place and belonging. The key poems here, ‘Compass’ and ‘Country,’ foreground the issues of territory and land, and seek to deal with the question of where and what home is. The first is a lyric suite stringing together childhood memories that still haunt and shape the writer’s life, events that involve water in one form or other. Beginning with a first memory of being dunked in a bathtub, it moves through a traumatic incident of being almost drowned by the poet’s brother, to the grandmother who looms large in Chong’s work, and who ‘wrestles with her selves,’ mirroring her poet-granddaughter’s fractured sense of self in another poem ‘Tide’ from the ‘West’ section: ‘ . . . I crossed/ the mirror and saw all my selves – I am/ meant to hold their gaze unflinching.’ ‘Compass’ is an attempt to thread all these disparate, sometimes conflicting, sometimes complementary, selves together into a continuous narrative. Positioned in the middle of the sequence, the poet’s father reminds her: ‘My father always said: where there is water, /there are Chinese people; where there are Chinese,/ there are Hakka people.’ The Hakka, which translates as guest people, are an ethnic minority from the south of China, and they form one of the many dialect groups that make up the diasporic Chinese community in Singapore. As a descendant of Hakkas who has emigrated from the country her ancestors have not so long ago settled in, Chong’s diasporic narrative becomes complicated by these tangled web of routes and roots, and overturns any essentialist notions of Chinese identity. Her Hakka heritage is thus doubly transplanted and translated, an evolving story which underscores what Ien Ang has observed as ‘the wide diversity and heterogeneity within and amongst the imagined community of the Chinese diaspora.’ Running through Chong’s work is her acute awareness of the transitory and fluid nature of her heritage, which is embodied in the clan name – ‘guest people.’ Tellingly, the sequence ends with an image of loss and continuing quest: ‘a tin compass,/ its needle wild and searching.’
The ‘East’ section revisits vanished memories (‘Enough’) and places (‘Pulau Ujong’) and habitats (‘The House’) and with the candour one finds in Sharon Olds’ work, whom Chong cites on numerous occasions in epigraphs and to which the last poem of Painting Red Orchids is dedicated, she gives poignantly vivid glimpses of her mother in ‘Clean’ and ‘The Task.’ She also summons the Song Dynasty woman poet Li Qingzhao; the two-part poem ‘Li Qingzhao’ is placed after the titular poem ‘Rainforest,’ which examines the linguistic resonances of the poet’s first name, tracking it to ‘the rain, a cloud/cradling drops that fall at an angle/ over a forest waiting to receive.’ China’s greatest woman poet wrote of loss and longing, her sensuous language almost transgressive in its carnal suggestiveness:
Men don’t like to hear her speak
of sex. Her desire for living flesh
and communion is unbecoming.
From centuries ago, across languages,
the woman poet tells us of ragged blossoms,
of the fine teeth of a gifted jade comb.
The Song poet’s bold, intimate style is consonant with the American poets Chong has learned so much from – Olds, Levine, Linda Gregg, and Jack Gilbert. Not surprising, Rainforest as collection is much more self-revealing than previous collections. In the ‘West’ and ‘North’ sections of the collection there are poems of erotic love and jealousy, and of loneliness and grief arising from childlessness, as well as intimate snapshots of the poet’s lover; these poems, though rooted in experience, stay well clear of confessionalism, their imagery rendering them specific and personal, while the understatement and metaphors make them universal in appeal.
The ‘West’ and ‘North’ directions of the book seek to take Chong’s work beyond the usual binaries into more uncertain territory; however it is the ‘East’ and ‘South’ sections that gives the work its ballast and thrust. ‘Country’ is perhaps the key poem in the work, the fraught political overtones of the title unmistakable to Australian readers. Country to the Indigenous imagination is much more than territorial claims; it involves cultural, social and spiritual relationships with the land. Thus far, as a migrant writer, Chong’s spatial poetics has been confined to urbanscapes. Here, the sequence begins in the outback, the red-earth country which proves resistant and impermeable, its mysteries inaccessible to the new arrival. In ‘Outcrop and Blue’ the earth is ‘hard ochre’ and haunted by ‘black skeletons,/ ghost shadows.’ There is no romanticizing the Dreamtime country or using the songlines as a point of entry into the meaning of country. The sense of disconnection is evident in the curt, declarative sentences, and phrasal nouns: ‘A man bends over. A woman/ leans back. Paperbark candle./ Paired tracks of the kangaroo.’ The admission of defeat is there from the start. For the first time in her work Chong broaches racism and the hostility towards the Chinese. On a visit to the outback she is shouted at: ‘Go back to your own country.’ At a supermarket in Sydney a woman hurls ‘Chinese cunt!’ at the poet. This prompts an examination of instability of racial constructs, and the inadequacy of categories like Chinese and Asian; the poet is variously mistaken for being Japanese, Korean, her Chinese accent confusing the Taiwanese and the mainlander Chinese. The poet concludes: ‘In Singapore, I am a quitter, a leaver./ In Australia, a new arrival.’
The fourth poem in ‘Country’ questions the idea of habitat as home, the detached naming of all the houses and apartments the poets has lived, in Singapore and Australia, failing to provide to provide any permanent sense of home and belonging. The inventory of minimalist imagery ends with a dispassionate image of home-making, utterly devoid of any sense of arrival or joy: ‘Now, my small flat with a garden and a strip of sky./ Two cats, my books, his records. Our plates, pots and pans./ Framed poems on the walls. At night, we light the lamps.’ The sense of displacement and dislocation driving the sequence finds temporary accommodation here, before it rises to the fore again in the last poem of the suite, where the poet and her partner go for a coastal walk. They see two girls in hijab ‘posing for photographs/by the cliff, the ocean behind them,’ but there is no contact, no marking of the multiculturalism that Australia is supposed to have embraced. Instead, the poem focuses on the hardness of the elemental landscape:
Sandstone and sea. Beach and bush.
Outcrop, island. You hear about walkers
who stray and die of thirst or exposure.
Always bring water. Leave enough time
for the return journey. Watch the sun’s path.
You’re on your own. This country cares for no one.
This is perhaps the bleakest of Chong’s poems – moving restlessly between habitats, landscapes and places; the sequence finds no purchase in the liminal spaces opened up by migration, no narrative closure for the diasporic subjectivity, only an overwhelming sense of alienation and disconnection from country and people. Chong’s work appears to have swung from the more positive mappings of self and place in previous collections to something darker, more fraught with uncertainty and danger, and constitutes an instance of how, to use Ien Ang’s words, ‘the diasporic imagination is steeped in continuous ambivalence.’
In the career of a poet, the third and fourth books are usually where a certain maturity of voice and style is reached, and a staking out of key thematic ground is achieved. Chong’s formal mastery, her stanzaic control, the deft handling of lyric form, and the use of understated narrative, qualities evolved from the first two collections, are more fully honed in Painting Red Orchids and Rainforest. In a time when younger poets favour ellipsis and discontinuity, when there prevails a distrust of autobiography and narrative in poetry, Chong has, over a quartet of books, crafted a fragmented narrative of migration and settlement, and made of the lyric form a vehicle for the quest for home and belonging. The first three books form a lyric cartography positioning the migrant self in the new environment, and mapping new spaces of transformation and change. Oddly, this instigates a rediscovery of tradition and heritage, a reassessment of the past, and a relearning of the Chinese culture and language which the poet had forsaken. Painting Red Orchids, though still enlisting literary tropes and motifs of classical Chinese art and poetry, evinces a release from the tug of memory, the poems being less anxious to reconcile the past and present, the old country and new home, and more willing to engage with the here and now, seeking meaning and solace in human connections. Moving further beyond the binaries of Australia/Singapore, past/present, Rainforest is edgy, questioning, betraying an unease, ambiguity and ambivalence about where the poet has found herself to be. The plain language is now almost wholly winnowed of the sensuous richness and metaphorical flash of the first two collections, the diction more lean and austere. And despite the poems of newfound love and human companionship, there is a palpable loneliness, a solitary and displaced subjectivity that finds momentary stay against confusion only within the lyric space of the poem, where the conflicting pulls of past and present, memory and loss, home and elsewhere are reconciled, and where the conversation between eastern and western literary produce a voice that is distinct and compelling, uncompromisingly honest and searching.