I came across Eileen Chong via Jon Shaw, a participant in the Australian Women Writers Challenge, when I was putting together a roundup on books featuring diversity. Eileen has published three volumes of poetry: Burning Rice, Peony and Paining Red Orchids. The latter two contain poems about plants, and as I’m interested in botanical writing, my interest was piqued.
A while later, I asked Eileen if she’d be interested in writing a guest post for a focus on Australian women writers of ethnic heritage, and to my delight she agreed. She wrote about how, although English was the language of commerce, education and law in Singapore, where she lived for twenty years before moving to Australia, her qualifications and education in English were not recognised here because
This was a frustrating set of circumstances but, happily, it led her to poetry.
Painting Red Orchids has been shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards, and when you read it, you can see why. The first poem, the titular ‘Painting Red Orchids’, dips back and forth between animal, plant and human, reminding us of their interconnectedness and how this manifests as art: ‘My wife has made/this paper with mulberry from our gardens. I lift/my brush, pull back my sleeve and saturate the hairs.’ These hairs come from animals – weasel, wolf, mink and leopard – showing us how art binds us to the natural world. Yet art not only needs the labour of growing mulberries, it also needs emotion. This, too, is bound up with environment. The artist’s inkstone ‘was my father’s: slate/quarried from the lake where my great-grandfather/drowned himself one spring night’. The loss of breath returns, though, in the final stanza, to suggest renewal:
One stroke, one breath: leaves give way to blossom.
More water – rain and cloud above the trees.
Cochineal paste, jade seal – red orchid bloom on white.
It’s a beautifully crafted poem, carrying on conversations within itself.
Other poems about plants follow, slow, quiet and complex pieces. In ‘Fern’ each frond is ‘a sister/to another, so many fingers and hands/learning to flourish on the underside/of things’, a suggestion not only of how the plant grows in the understory, but also how it steadily, unshowily, grows, ‘unafraid/of the dark, pushing through stem, bark/growing vein by stubborn vein through morning dew and winter rain’.
‘Orchidaceae: Vanda ‘Miss Joaquin’ is named for Ashkhen Hovakimian, who bred the hybrid orchid, now Singapore’s national flower. The flower’s back is ‘turned to front, violet frills — blooms/like bruises along a curving spine’, a mingling of human and plant that reappears in ‘her petal skin calling to attention/the minute hairs on my thighs’, and which aptly mirrors the fact that the woman is now the plant, as it was named after her. However, as the spelling wasn’t accurate, ‘The heart of the flower/is the misnamed woman’ who is now ‘forced to live on always’.
Not all the poems in Painting Red Orchids are about plants. Many of them circle around the domestic: the friends, lovers, music and food, all contained within houses, or gardens, as Leike is in ‘Elegy’. A cat that was once ‘sinuous, pliant, a wound/spring’, he is no longer ‘among the violets or seeking shade/in the agapanthus, but buried. Dirt/covering honey, amber eyes now glassed’. The line breaks emphasise energy —wound, with its double meaning of tightness and loss — and bluntness — the finality of soil, which covers the loveliness of honey. The poem shunts back and forth between beauty, comfort and loss, summarising life in a way.
In ‘Revisit’ the narrator visits her grandmother who ‘forgets that she has made the tea./She boils water again, and forgets the leaves./Yet my grandmother has not forgotten me’. The rhyme in the poem – tea, leaves, me – mirrors the repetitiveness of trying to remember, and forgetting, and remembering again.
What I love about these poems is their simplicity. They’re so pared back that they are like plinths, holding up their images. Each of her books, too, are beautiful, and I like taking them out, looking at them and reading them. You can check them out at Pitt Street Poetry or on Eileen’s website.
This is my fifth review for the Australian Women Writers Challenge.