Review: Eileen Chongon Lachlan Brown

Time’s Moebius Strip

Lunar Inheritance is Lachlan Brown’s second collection of poetry. His first, Limited Cities, was published in 2012 by Giramondo, and was highly commended in the Mary Gilmore Award 2014 for a first collection of poetry. Brown was born and raised in Macquarie Fields, NSW, and is currently based in Wagga Wagga, NSW, where he works at Charles Stuart University as a Lecturer in English.

I first met Lachlan at Gleebooks in Sydney in 2014, at the launch of Judith Beveridge’s Storm and Honey. I remember speaking with him, and being confounded when he gave me his business card. He didn’t look like a ‘Brown’ – Lachlan is half-Chinese, and I had immediately assumed he would have a Chinese surname. In Lunar Inheritance, he explores the complexities of ethnic origin and identity as sited on his body and in his explorations of suburban Ashfield as well as the city of Guangzhou in China.

Lunar Inheritance opens with three epigraphs: the first is from the Bible, the second, from Wu Hung’s treatise on the art installation, Waste not, by Song Dong, and the final, lines of poetry by the minimalist Chinese poet, Yi Sha. All three epigraphs serve to frame the collection in terms of its near-obsessive questioning of objects, and the poem as object and as a repository of meaning.

In a recent interview with Fiona Wright for the Sydney Review of Books on writing in Western Sydney, Brown talks about the hoarding practices of his maternal grandmother at her home in Ashfield, and how it relates to Song Dong’s conceptual art, Waste Not. Dong’s installation was first created in 2005, displaying 10,000 domestic items, all owned by one person: the artist’s mother. It has been described in Wu Hung’s book as ‘nothing but a random collection of discarded objects’. Visitors in Beijing, and at later incarnations of the exhibit in Korea and Germany, consistently responded strongly – ‘some of whom wept in front of it as if encountering a long lost friend or relative’.

Brown has called Waste Not a ‘touchstone’ for his poetry, linking his grandmother’s obsessive hoarding of seemingly useless objects saved out of real or imagined need and/or fear, without sense or meaning, objects ‘surrounding her like untruths she repeats in set patterns, looping her stories’ through ‘time’s moebius strip’. The objects serve as a kind of fa bao, or magic charms, against poverty, lack, and loss. For Brown, he sees that to his grandmother, ‘everything is valued in strange ways, so that everything seemed to… have equal value’, which is say great value, and/or no value.

The poems in Lunar Inheritance themselves are like individual talismanic objects: grouped into seventeen sequences, each section titled and coupled with an illustration by the artist Tony Curran that evokes the ideographs of written Chinese. The first section, ‘Sanctioned entry’, is accompanied by a drawing of a cave-like entryway underpinned by a firm horizontal stroke like earth or a foundation, with multiple short dashes hinting at movement. Another section, ‘The benefits of civic living’, resemble a topographic map of smaller clusters of buildings divided by walls or borders, alongside two monolithic structures that could be communal spaces, or alternately, abysses.

The Singaporean-Australian poet Boey Kim Cheng, in his essay ‘Remembering Du Fu’, says that ‘Chinese is a painterly language’, that ‘each character, each ideogrammatic composite inscribes the thingness of a thing’. He goes on to assert that ‘it is also a language of memory; the characters are learned by rote, sound and stroke welded into an ideographic whole’. Unlike the learned system of the Chinese language, however, Brown’s titled sections and their accompanying illustrations serve as mysterious ciphers to the poems contained within. One has to ascribe meaning to something that may not possess any inherent narrative, or indeed, value.

The poems in Lunar Inheritance are demanding– there is no one simplistic narrative or story here, no discernible beginning, middle or end. The sense of discomfort for the reader ultimately lies in the lack of a fixed centre, in the absence of an inheritable coherent narrative, the lack of which shadows every page. Each poem and each sequence in Lunar Inheritance stand, collectively, as fragmented parts of a whole. Brown tells us that he ‘cannot speak the language of the Guangzhou morning’, that his father is the ‘only white guy in the place’ (‘the place’ being a ‘Hurstville BBQ restaurant’), that his ‘mother is losing her Cantonese’, and his ‘son… is blond-haired and one-quarter Chinese’. The poem ‘Chinese Container’ illustrates the poet’s attempt to form coherent meaning from disparate objects and events:

Chinese Container

Always the bewildered face, the recalcitrant hair
no barber can resolve (and so you just envision
yourself without it). Your veins are a river system,
generations in the masking. Names flow out in prayer

or just evaporate into the globally-warmed air,
while you catch your manufactured breath. Transitional
arrangements seem to always be in place, so listen
to each election result with the utmost care.

Who prayed for a double portion of the Spirit?
Who knows the word beyond the horizon’s words?
Two migrating birds fly through this hazy atmosphere

calling out in a dialect we cannot ever inherit.
They notice us, and fly on, through distant suburbs
where they must learn to observe as well as hear.

This beautifully contained sonnet exemplifies the persona’s restless, meditative search for origin and meaning in a world where the two often do not co-exist. Of course, a ‘Chinese container’ refers to the ubiquitous, reusable yet disposable plastic storage tub, multiples of which are often stored nesting like Russian dolls, which I am certain the poet’s grandmother collected many of. The poems of this book do not purport to present any answers, but exhort the reader to piece together a necessary language, to fashion a semblance of a coherent identity that will refuse to hold a single shape.

The act of naming and renaming features in the poem ‘Self-storage’, where the poet’s grandparents gave themselves the Western names of ‘Sheila’ (‘because that’s what the Aussies called her’) and ‘Allen’ (‘after the brand of sweets / sold in his mixed business’). It is telling that the poet’s grandmother, so set on reinventing herself, has disavowed her personal history, and with effect, her cultural inheritance, so that his mother has to learn ‘to cook Chinese / food from books, recuperating her authenticity  / with the same vigour as the slap of peanut / oil hitting a scorching wok.’

Brown tells us ‘we cannot invent the past’, that he is constantly asked ‘where are you really from?’. He says: ‘Sometimes I discover myself by / broadening the Aussie accent / in particular locations’, that ‘[b]ack home this helps me blend / in, when I’m in Australian country towns where I’m meant to live and move and have my being.’.

Adam Aitken, in his memoir One Hundred Letters Home, writes of being a ‘half-caste’, and of trying to perform Australian-ness for his Thai family. Similarly, Brown’s mixed ethnic heritage leads him to the realisation that Asian-ness and Australian-ness are identities to be invented, performed, and resisted against, by himself or by others. Brown demonstrates this ambivalence in the poem ‘Artistic Licenses’:

Artistic Licenses

Incidents you just need to forget about for a while:
your father gets a comment about mail order brides,
your brother goes for a run around leafy St Ives,
and is yelled at by a tradie mimicking ‘Gangnam Style’

dance moves with hi-vis humour. Meanwhile, a rivalry
in your creative writing class ends with two guys
joking about Asians eating cats. Your mother cries
after being abused in the street. She reads the Bible

in church and gets complimented on her
ability to speak English. Your overseas relations
joke about Chinese migrant workers drowning

off the coast of Morecambe (‘What’s for dinner?’
said the shark). You rethink your motivations
for writing. You catch yourself frowning.

This hyphenated in-betweenness is also seen in the book’s multiple references to trains. Like stairwells, trains are liminal spaces, not destinations in and of themselves. In Between Stations, a collection of travel essays, Boey Kim Cheng writes that ‘[s]omewhere between stations you forget the name of the place you have left behind, and the name coming towards you is still indistinct’. On the trains of Brown’s narratives, we dwell ‘in a resting place between memory and imagination, between forgetting and remembering, between home and home.’.

Ultimately, the poems in Lunar Inheritance serve as a ‘fathersong’ of the ‘grandmothercountry’; they are what the Beijing poet Bei Dao might call ‘written wounds’. T.S. Eliot, in the last of his Four Quartets, ‘Little Gidding’, tells us:

If you came this way,
Taking any route, starting from anywhere,
At any time or at any season,
It would always be the same: you would have to put off
Sense and notion. You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid. And prayer is more
Than an order of words, the conscious occupation
Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.

Brown’s poems, from ‘Sanctioned Entry’ through to ‘Almost There’, are more than just ‘another traveller’s song’ – they are, like Eliot’s Quartets, what the American poet Li-Young Lee might call ‘a dialogue with the universe’; they are, in Brown’s own words, ‘ancestral temple / drumbeats… causing small waves to ripple’ across the narratives of self, of family, of Asian-Australian-ness, and across Australian writing.

Lunar Inheritance, as a unified object comprising multiple objects carefully juxtaposed with one another, answers Yi Sha’s question in the epigraph at the beginning of the book: ‘what’s the use of writing poetry / in this ancient city / since the new era have arrived’. In Brown’s vision, the use of poetry is this: that the value of poetry directly correlates with the value you ascribe to it. Brown’s poems reveal their value to you only if you take the time and effort to interrogate the poems, and in doing so, are led to examine and reflect on your own histories and value systems, and those of the world around us. Lunar Inheritance is a fine, nuanced, and powerful collection of new poems, which continue and extend the narrative begun in Limited Cities. May there be many more such prayers to come.

This essay is based on a speech given at the launch of Lachlan Brown’s Lunar Inheritance.