By Eileen Chong
Reviewed by Brian Burmeister
At its best, literature opens our minds to new experiences and new ways of thinking. The ambitious new poetry collection Another Language by Australian poet Eileen Chong carefully weaves her experiences, family traditions, self-discovery, and philosophy in ways that introduce us to the author's rich family history and Chinese customs. While primarily set in the present, the poems span a multitude of locations—Australia, Singapore, China, and the United States—as well as various times throughout history. The poems provide vivid and meaningful snapshots of different beliefs and desires. To help accomplish this, the poems' personas change from Chong herself to members of her family to various historical figures. Chong impressively tackles a lot of content and perspectives in Another Language, but her skill and thoughtfulness as a storyteller allow her to bring to life the locations and the lives of which she writes.
Interestingly, food is often at the forefront of Chong's explorations. What might sound simple is anything but. Whether through its preparation, consumption, or enjoyment, food serves as a central, sophisticated gateway to memory, to tradition, and to her family's history. Recipes serve as a conduit for family bonds. "Grandmother's Dish" exemplifies this—the poem, which follows the form of conversational directions on preparing Hokkien Prawn Mee—offers beautiful glimpses into the relationship between Chong and her grandmother (as well as Chong's love for cooking and Singaporean cuisine). "A Winter's Night" uses food as the trigger for memories. The male lover in the poem is brought back to his past and his family, who are oceans away, through soup: "he speaks / of his grandmother's Scotch broth / and tells me he feels like he is in Scotland." Perfectly and poignantly encapsulating that experience, the poem's speaker concludes with "we consume spoon after spoon of history."
The common bonds we form with family, friends, and even those we've never met are threaded through Another Language. Tragedy and adversity can serve to bring people closer together. Chong's infertility issues—so movingly addressed in several poems—serve as the catalyst for her mother's good-intentioned actions in "Chinese Ginseng." In "Revisit," the bond between grandmother and granddaughter persists despite the grandmother's neurodegenerative disorder. In other poems, such as the exquisite "A Walk with Phil Levine," Chong uses common things—a shared love of "music, books, and chocolate"—as a way of expressing a connection deeper than just admiration with the deceased poet.
Death is a prominent theme of Chong's poems. In "Release," she reflects upon her grandfather's ashes being scattered at sea. The poem walks the reader through the funeral rites a young Chong experienced that day, and their significance: "Did this mean his spirit was now free?" One of the most haunting poems in the collection "Death-Houses" introduces the reader to the overcrowded tenement buildings housing "consumptives" and lepers. The imagery and tone are dire, but in the traditions surrounding death, there is something stunning:
You write your name clearly, black ink on white,
write the names of your ancestors, back to back.
You carry this beneath your underclothes, next
to your heart. This will be the last thing they take.
The poems of Another Language range from dark to light-hearted. Chong's art is usually subtle—she paints fantastic scenes that pull you into the moments, into knowing the people—scenes that open themselves to interpretation, to questions, to a shared sense of meaning-making with the reader. Like the delicious food she often writes about, Chong wants you to savor each moment and interaction. Even when she has a clear point to make—"To give life is alchemy. To take life: / a bucket full of pondwater poured / into the balsam" for instance—the message is deep, requiring contemplation. Another Language is, as the title might suggest, about seeing a different world in hopes of seeing the world differently.