Bloodlines: Review of Burning Rice by Eileen Chong

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.

In ‘Elementary Chinese’ Chong cleverly interprets Chinese characters literally by paring the radicals of the words armour and bird to equal duck: ‘a bird wearing armour is a duck’. On surface level the poem reads like a definitive list of obscure images or a riddle, the way you interpret the poem is essentially a linguistic puzzle. These lines are definitely playful! The line, ‘The sea: a mother wearing a hat / by the waves’ conjures up the frill on the sunhat and the sound of the ocean, accompanied by a sense of unease or uncertainty.

Halfway through the poems become smaller in size, but this spontaneous brevity gives enough space to let the other images stir and settle. ‘Clockwork’ is striking in its imagery:

‘and count. Weigh the shadow of the egg yolk.
The sonographer measures your minute spine

and hands us a print of a ghost-speck
labelled ‘baby’ as I peel on my clothes.’

What I love so much about these lines is the precision and care, echoing that of the sonographer’s but also the way Chong manipulates expression. ‘ghost-speck’ is haunting and the reveal of ‘baby’ brings us into realisation of new life.

I am particularly taken by ‘Lu Xun, your hands’ in which Chong describes Lu Xun, Mao’s favoured poet of the 20th century. Lu Xun is really a seminal writer in Chinese Literature, whose work calls up sensations of being homesick and this is echoed strongly in Chong’s collection. This poem takes a romantic and admired tone, especially within ‘your hands / are clasped behind your back, / across the black silk / of your scholars dress’ and ‘Your thoughts / unfold before me, beginning / at the moss-green rocks. They linger’. The line breaks are most beautiful and suggest pausing to reflect and meditate on and within Lu Xun’s influence.

Eileen Chong figures out her heritage via food and ritual. This is a wonderful, rendered first collection which is warm, playful and reminiscent of the things we love and the landscapes in which we do so.