Eileen Chong’s new release Rainforest touches on nature, family, history, identity, food, belonging, and self. In a resonant voice that speaks its own truth, Chong shares her world with the reader, inviting them into a sensuous environment that is moving and powerful. Rainforest is divided into four sections that mirror the cardinal directions, moving from East to South to West to North. These places are places of the natural, the human made, the in-between, and Chong is adept at travelling between locations, sharing her insights, observations, and gaze.
There are many poems that touched me, and, by the time I came to write this review, my copy was dog-eared throughout. This was particularly the case for the section titled “South”, which observed the landscape and people of where I myself have been. This could be described as “Australia”, but it is also more than that, precisely because it is specific to geographies that are distinct. Here “pollen dusts our ears” (31); “the eye toeholds/the impossible rock” (35); and the “slopes uphill. Breathe: salt and humidity” (41). Chong sees all these places with fresh eyes, having a wry self-awareness about who she is and where she comes from, stating:
In Japan, they speak to me
in Japanese. Korean people think
I’m Korean. My Mandarin sounds
Taiwanese. The Chinese ask me
how I learnt the national language.
In Singapore, I am a quitter, a leaver.
In Australia, a new arrival. There’re
so many of you here, you must feel at home – (italics in original 40)
At other places, Chong shares her feelings of being out of water, of not knowing the language, of suffering from racism, of being without anchor, of wondering what she left behind. But she continues to make her way with a sense of equipoise, daring and bravery.
This is seen in “Enough” where she writes:
The rain I listened to as a child
was not the same rain you heard.
The maltose my grandmother wound
on the end of a chopstick was sweeter
than your memory of honey. Clogs
on the tiled floor, punctuated
and broken like the clatter of a metal
spatula on the edge of a cast-iron wok.
The words hanging on our wall: painted
pictograms distilled from etchings
on bone. The hard soil I grew out of
is not the rich earth you sprung from.
Do not tell me I am not enough.
The water I drank was at turns clear,
then muddied, like the stagnant ponds
of the wetlands where our ancestors
first learnt to break themselves in half.
Do not tell me I am not enough. (6)
In this poem, we see a direct address to an unnamed Other and we could speculate that Chong is speaking out of specificity, out of ethnicity, and out of individuality. It is an attempt to engage in meaningful dialogue even as the speaker’s rain, memories, soil, and earth are different. It is this last juxtaposition, of “hard soil” and “rich earth”, that suggests how unique this is to the individual. Although the tone of the poem is compelling and defiant, it also carries the hauntings of language (‘hanging on our wall’) and the desire to be recognised (the repeated “do not tell me I am not enough”).
In my reading, the poem turns on the following lines “The water I drank was at turns clear,//then muddied, like the stagnant ponds/of the wetlands where our ancestors//first learnt to break themselves in half.” Here the “I” is speaking about the changeability of water, of how it is different at different times, which is then compared to the wetlands of ancestors through simile. Yet, if we think we are in the stagnant waters of the people who came before us, this is made uncertain in the next line precisely because they are broken too. At once, the poem echoes attachment to a long past and articulates an anxiety about benefiting from displacement; and all in such a way that it expresses its own contradictions and ambivalences with a certain autonomy. This is where the reader can perceive a way forward. Even if we are told we are not enough, we all must become enough, together.
In Chong, we might find something to celebrate in the movement and possibility of a life that crosses borders and embraces place and people. We must write out of our traditions then, enter more fully into what it is to be our selves, and all in order to create a tomorrow that has space for everyone who wants to belong to a deeper truth. We do not know the future to come, but we can sense its shape within us thanks to Chong. Rainforest can accept the respective histories, aesthetics, and ethics of poets as poets, and it helps us move towards a culture capable of loving debate, honest engagement, and pleasurable dialogue. We can see that the rain is falling to quench our thirst for language itself. Thanks to Chong, we might catch it before it reaches the dirt.
Eileen Chong. Rainforest. Sydney: Pitt Street Poetry, 2018.
Robert Wood is the author of two books and recently completed a residency at Columbia University. Find out more at: www.robertdwood.net.