burning rice by Eileen Chong | Australian Poetry 2012
This post first appeared on Virgule.
burning rice is part of the 2012 New Voices series and the debut collection from Eileen Chong. The publication is a sleek, pocket-size 40 pages. Here lies great poetry, tight phrasing and an innate way of telling stories. The title evokes a nostalgic sense of home and food; the notion of absence circulates the poems, reminiscent of scents and fragrances. What strikes me first is Chong’s ability to immerse the reader in two landscapes: the old and the present and this imagery is unswerving, charming and utterly absorbing. Think the sacredness of bathhouses, mooncakes and photo albums braided with beautiful descriptions of quiet and reflected moments. In any other context, these glimpses could have been mundane but here they’re given breath.
The poetry feels like walking through a family home, all those details, ornaments with stories behind them. There’s a familiarity in reading these poems, despite the cultural difference. In ‘Before Dawn’, Chong textually dedicates the poem to her grandfather with wonderful use of language, shifting to present from passing: ‘Father of my father, I was not quite seven / when you died. We drove in darkness / before dawn broke’. In ‘My Hakka Grandmother’ there’s the lines ‘run / through the fields, feet unbound /’ and ‘rice husks, like your dark hair’ evocative of childhood and that memory of food and love combined. This poem describes well the borders of otherness, specifically in ‘I wonder where our bloodline begins. / We are guest people /’. In ‘Kelong’ Chong reminiscences 1980 via the use of photography, the imagery is haunting in ‘He holds the ghost / of a fishing line but has caught nothing’ and ‘my grandmother steams / the orange fish in a wok, when you grandfather picks out / its eyes with his chopsticks’. Like Chong, I can also taste ‘the sweet flesh’ and the poem conjures up a cinematic photograph that I hold in my mind. Read more…