Review: Rainforest by Eileen Chong

The Chinese character on the cover of this poetry collection, Eileen Chong explains in an author’s note at the end, is “lín”, part of her Chinese name and her personal name. It means a “constant, gentle, nourishing rain”, but its components (or radicals) refer to rain drops, her mother’s maiden name, and wood. Rainforest, then, “is embodied within the word itself”. It’s a fitting statement for a collection of the many things that can be embodied in words. The title poem, which opens the collections, speaks of “my namesake, so greatly desired”. Perhaps alluding to the battles fought over resources in south east Asia – teak, rubber – Chong writes that “men set fire to a thousand ships”, reminding me of the war fought over Helen in The Iliad, the face that launched the Greek army. So there is conflict embodied in this word too.

Rainforest is divided into four sections, the cardinal points. As Chong explains in Compass: “my first// poetry, the ocean of my undoing./ At the bottom: a tin compass,/ its needle wild and searching.” Where are we then? In East we are tracing genealogy, Chong’s Hakka ancestry via Singapore. South takes us to the colonial shores of Australia, and particularly Sydney, opening with Wollemi Pine, “ancient trees/ their first names/ passed from memory”. West and North, the latter two sections of the book, seem less located in place than they are with people, in West a marriage and then divorce from a rich man; in North the finding of new love with a Scottish man.

Many of these poems speak to the disorientation of migration. “In Singapore, I am a quitter, a leaver./ In Australia, a new arrival,” Chong writes in Country, a poem which speaks to the struggle to find purchase on new land, especially in the face of racism. A woman at the supermarket calls her a “Chinese cunt”; “There’re/ so many of you here” mutters an unnamed chorus, basically Australia. Meeting another Hakka woman at a cafe in Mirror, she writes, “I hear the language of the land we do not visit// except through our fathers and mothers/ and their mothers and fathers.” “Do not tell me I am not enough,” she writes in Enough, an effective riposte to those who would belittle her.

Some of my favourite poems in this collection are about family and filial piety. In Clean this devotion shows in the poet bathing her elderly mother. In Father, Crow it is her mother making her father soup to take to work:

My mother is counting

the hours: to cut a chicken

into its parts, to boil water,

add dates, dried woodears,

rock sugar, a pinch of salt.

Food and its rituals are central to these relationships. In The Task it is dissembling crabs, in Durian it is her father slicing open the pungent fruit: “surely no one was meant for this./ King. Thorns. Stench.”

Family also shapes Chong’s approach to womanhood and love. In Flood she learns that “to be a woman/was to learn how to scrub”. These patriarchal structures run deep. In Li Qingzhao, about the the 12th Century Song poet, Li finds that “men don’t like hear her speak/ of sex.” Many poems describe a woman’s struggles to find happiness in a soulless, even violent, marriage. At the dinner party in What I Know, someone asks her what she knows of love. What she knows, the poet replies, “is nothing. Champagne and fine/ hotels; tears over ten courses”. On seeing a river red gum, a tree infamous for unexpectedly dropping its heavy limbs, as the couple leave the opera, the poet thinks, “Widow-maker./ The diamonds dulled; the emerald split” (Aria).

There are hints of other sadnesses, childlessness. In Sandpaper, the poet has an operation on her womb: “the rubbed-over/ losses: sandpapered embryos. Child-scab.” In Calf, Tree, she sees a cow: “She, too, laboured and delivered,/passed her calf, divided herself./ Inside of me: only a barren tree”. But by Autumn the pain has numbed, “Once the sight of a swollen belly/ would fill me with shame — // now, my eyes pass over, unseeing.”

But ultimately Chong finds love again, presumably the Colin that the poem North is dedicated to, “true north: I sought you/in the darkest of nights./ Drop anchor.” In Crossing the Spey, she now pays tribute to his ancestry. “I would like to see it for myself./ Gorse and heather./ Glen and hill./ The snow falling clean in the gloaming”. In Bamboo, they labour over a garden, planting bamboo, “We are covered in dirt and sweat./ We wait for the forest to rise.”

Many of these poems are ekphrastic, they portray visual art. In Dragon it is a mural on a hotel wall in Tokyo, in Warhol: Notebooks a sketch of a naked man, and in the lovely Outcrop and Blue a landscape painting by Neville Pilven, “A row of trees,/ not seen before — // black skeletons,/ ghost shadows”. Throughout Rainforest Chong is interested in the craft of art and poetry, its physical presence and weight.

These poems are austere, still. At their best, they place tiny, immaculate word pictures before you to marvel at: “Daughter, flown bird, grown self” (Father, Crow); “A swallow/ seeks its mate. One lifetime laps another” (Fault). My favourite poem of all is Butterly Lovers, a reworking of a Chinese legend in which a daughter dresses as a man to become a scholar, where she finds doomed love with a man. Here’s her leaving home: “Scholar’s robes./ Books and bedroll./ Inkblock and scroll”; and pursuing her study: “Mind of poetry,/ breath of calligraphy,/ sweep of painting.” Together,

we wrote couplets and drank wine

tried to catch the glittering fish

in red ink and in the moonlight.

After they both die, the two lovers become butterflies. “It will hurt to unmake. Wait;/ transmute.” In the same way I was reminded of The Iliad, I was also reminded of Ovid’s Metamorphoses throughout, the possibility of transformation. Water and its mutability (it is variously a deluge, rain, flood, steam) is central to this collection. “Where there is water,/ there are Chinese people,” her father tells her in Compass. No matter where we are, there is always the possibility of transformation, and of connecting past, present and future.

Gay rating: 1/5 for the butterfly lovers, who fall in love when the woman is impersonating a man, like Mulan.

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