Feature Articles / Eileen Chong on beauty and truth: a poetics of resistance

Where do our stories come from? What are these tales we know, speak, understand, and replicate? Where do the words go? What do they do, or undo? What do they leave undone? When and how do we return to a place without words?

How, then, may I
speak of flowers
here, where
a world of forms convulses

­­            –‘Furious Versions’, Li-Young Lee


I want to be honest in this essay, which is not the same thing as being truthful. I will speak of what happened, of what could have happened, and of what continues to happen: to you, to me, to them, to us. I will use what tools I have, what the page will hold. What passes for words. What words pass us.


This real life is a story!
Life! Life! We sleep
in bed at night
but do not story a story because life!

­­           –‘Cambodia’, Monica Sok


I was a child who was often laughed at for crying. I cried at many things: at the thunderstorms that raged outside and within, at silence and neglect, at the loneliness I could not name. Once, I was lifted and placed into an empty bathtub so I could fill it with my tears. I am still alone in the dark. My hands still search for the drain, so my grief and I may be released, and disappear.


Think of the toil we must cost them,
One scaled perfectly to eternity.
And still, they come, telling us
Through the ages not to fear.

­­­­           – ‘The Angels’, Tracy K. Smith


From before memory was meant to be memory, I remember: hands, fingers, flesh. Memory finds its locus in my body. I undress, I wash, I dress. In the mirror my body shimmers when I turn my head from left to right, from right to left. Memory’s eyes do not leave me. Or perhaps it is my eyes which do not leave it. I used to pray every night for the angels to guard each corner of my bed. I worried that they had the names of men.


She will find one flower at first, then another and another.

­­           – ‘Maps / 地图’, Nina Mingya Powles


A child is learning to walk. They rise from all fours, wobbling. They balance, arms in the air, steadying the self. They fall over, and over, and we soothe them. We know it is part of learning how to walk: to learn not to fall, to learn how to get up again. But not everyone rises from the dead. Not every dead body becomes a tree, or a flower.


It is trapped beginnings, migrant
hands and feet for a living.

            – ‘Rounding’, Khaty Xiong


I look through old photographs. Here is a man whose hands clutched wooden blocks that he shuffled and clapped in the dirt in order to move forward, in order to live. A taxonomy of heights: some must be above, and so others must stay below. My ancestors had to train their eyes on the very ground they tilled, watching the feet of those who would crush them without care. Their bleached bones: a runway for those who would take flight. The sky unfathomable to them, and to me.


Look at how I perform for you
Look at how you perform for me

­­           – ‘Visual Orders’, Jenny Xie


And yet we have eyes, we have hands, have feet, have bodies, minds, histories, futures. We, too, are present. Who watches who? Do we perform even in the dark? You who watch us, you who do not care what happens behind the curtain, even as you mouth the same lines blurred by so many tongues before yours. Words so overused they crumble into meaningless noise.


                                    O tell me                                 oh—
tell me how to keep                sun from spilling—
            from all my man-made seams—

­­           –‘Husband Stitch’, Jihyun Yun


It was like this: I thought I was in love. It was offered to me as a glittering, wrapped gift. I told myself, this is what love is. I saw it happen to others. I did not think happiness was synonymous with my reality. I understood only the characters for roof, table, and bed. I thought marriage was an envelope into which I could seal the secret poetry of myself. I left it heavy in a drawer, until one day, when I found a dull knife. I sharpened its blade on the underside of a bowl, the way my grandmother taught me.


Sometimes all I have
are words and to write them means
they are no longer
prayers but are now animals.
Other people can hunt them.

­­           –‘Obit’, Victoria Chang


In my dreams, I return to the staircases. I am always stumbling down the steps. The staircases are alternately wide and wooden, narrow and metal. They wind through people’s homes, rooms crammed full of their lives. My task is to descend without being seen, without being stopped, without being caught. I do not know why I keep running, or when I can rest. I wake up tired, and ascend the stair.


Nothing like a river could be just for the name.
Nothing like a sea could leave without us knowing why.

­­           –‘The Inland Sea’, Evelyn Araluen


I draw a map. I shade the blue in, and label each element. I take particular care with the stones. They have been worn down by moving water, which is also the hand of time. Each pebble has its own distinct weight; they have been shaped and reshaped. The river is wide and slow-moving here. See how it branches out into many tributaries, until the land cannot hold itself against the water, and spills into sea. This is the delta. The mouth of the river only a memory. All that begins, ends, and begins again.


Here is a ship, an ocean.
Here is a figure, her story a few words in the blue void.

­­           –‘The Galleons 1’, Rick Barot


Always the image of the blinking, human cargo, transported in the sunless hold, as the deck opens to the day. New arrivals in an unknown land. Knowledge, the first mapping; mapping, the first act of possession. To define: in language, in ink on a page. But what of the ones we do not write of, who refuse to be contained in vessels of our own making? Who exist in wind, in water, in grasses and trees, in lakes and rivers, in sand and desert? Some truths cannot be compressed into words, onto paper.


it is possible to stay afloat with others who tread carefully through archive
and memory with dignity and purpose             who refuse to be fixed in time

­­           –‘Colonial Archive’, Natalie Harkin


It was like this: my mother blew up the arm floats, and pulled first my hands, then my arms through the openings. The seams scratched my skin, leaving long red welts. All she wanted was for me to survive. I was an insect in a lake, struggling to stay on the surface. My legs pointed down towards the depths, threshing. Those who try to drown me do not realise that there are beings whose entire lives exist underwater, for whom breath is liquid weight.


Water in your welcome
the clouds, the blood

­­           –‘Oyster Shell Necklace’, Ellen van Neerven


Grit enters an oyster, or a mussel. The mollusc first tries to eject the invader. Failing that, it coats the foreign object with its own secretions, layer by layer, to soften the edges, to try to take the hurt away. People harvest the shells. They prise them open, greedy for pearls. They trade gleaming strands for land, for slaves. They learn how to seed flesh. They farm pain. They need more, and more, and more. Each pearl beautiful and useless in the death that haunts it: bleached as teeth, as bones.


Plant a plain, thick garden,
let it choke your lawn
in it, let it live; a possibility; a breath.

­­           –‘greenstick two’, Alison Whittaker


We wander through the manicured gardens. I notice you look unwell. I understand why —you have travelled to the underside of the world, only to come face to face with your history. How do I tell you we cannot escape? We do not draw straight lines away from our origins. In the middle of this wild field, there is a temple. Inside the temple, hung incense-spirals burn. Sweet smoke rises to the dovetailed rafters. There are no nails in that place.


Your fingers crowned with meat hooks and cleavers.
You holding me and whispering, Who did this to you?
sawing me into a shallow boat.

­­           –‘Autopsy’, Emily Jungmin Yoon


I sit across from you. You like the sun on your skin. I remain in the shadows. I watch your mouth open and close, close and open. I am listening, but I do not hear you. I am in the kitchen where my grandmother fillets the fish my grandfather caught on a line. She makes her cuts, grasps the edge of fish-skin firmly, and tears it away in one smooth motion. There are so many fish left to catch, to hang out to dry, to preserve against the famine to come.


Maps are ghosts: white and
layered with people and places I see through.

­­           –‘They Don’t Love You Like I Love You’, Natalie Diaz


When I was twelve, I stood in a crowd with a crucifix tied around my neck. I looked up, and saw him: blue-eyed, impossibly blonde. The mirrors looked back. Between the covers of the books I read: only white girls. What language had I inherited? What languages have I lost? Behind the thick glass: long-dead animals, stuffed and posed, forever hunted.


Skin had hope, that’s what skin does.
Heals over the scarred place, makes a road.
Love means you breathe in two countries.

­­           –‘Two Countries’, Naomi Shihab Nye


My lover fingers my scars. He counts them, seam by seam. There are others he does not see; here are wounds not yet grown over. He says my scars are the remnants of the mould from which I was punched out. Memories, histories, pathways. Some days I wake up and forget what bed, which country, and whose body I inhabit.


                            Imagine you must survive

without running? I’ve come from the lacing patterns of leaves,

            I do not know where else I belong.

­­           –‘Ancestors’, Ada Limón


I am tired of running. My earliest memory is that of being carried while my mother ran, the world blurring by. What do we run from? Stones cut our feet so deeply that the roads we walk are all stained with blood. My mother shows me a scan, and points to a dark shadow where a hole has opened up in her left ventricular chamber. Perhaps it was always there. Her heart keeps on beating. Whole forests are watered by our sweat, by our tears.


Everyone laughed at the impossibility of it,
but also the truth. Because who would believe
the fantastic and terrible story of all of our survival
those who were never meant
                                               to survive?

­­           –‘Anchorage’, Joy Harjo


Where do our stories come from? What are these tales we know, speak, understand, and replicate? Where do the words go? What do they do, or undo? What do they leave undone? When and how do we return to a place without words? I have written these lines in honesty. This essay is a truth. I do not believe it. Maybe it is enough that we survive.


References (in order of quotes used):

Li-Young Lee, ‘Furious Versions’, from The City in Which I Love You (1990), BOA Editions Ltd, Rochester, New York.

Monica Sok, ‘Cambodia’, from A Nail the Evening Hangs On (2020), Copper Canyon Press, Port Townsend, Washington.

Tracy K. Smith, ‘The Angels’, from Wade in the Water (2018), Graywolf Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Nina Mingya Powles, ‘Maps / 地图’, from Magnolia, 玉蘭 (2020), Nine Arches Press, Rugby, United Kingdom.

Khaty Xiong, ‘Rounding’, from Poor Anima (2015), Apogee Press, Berkeley, California.

Jenny Xie, ‘Visual Orders’, from Eye Level (2018), Graywolf Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Jihyun Yun, ‘Husband Stitch’, from Some Are Always Hungry (2020), University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln.

Victoria Chang, from Obit (2020), Copper Canyon Press, Port Townsend, Washington.

Evelyn Araluen,‘Inland Sea’, from Drop Bear (2021), University of Queensland Press, St Lucia, Queensland.

Rick Barot, ‘The Galleons 1’ from The Galleons, (2020), Milkweed Editions, Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Natalie Harkin, ‘Colonial Archive’, from Archival Poetics (2019), Vagabond Press, Australia.

Ellen van Neerven, ‘Oyster Shell Necklace’, from Throat (2020), University of Queensland Press, St Lucia, Queensland.

Alison Whittaker, ‘greenstick two’, from Blakwork (2018), Magabala Books, Broome, Western Australia.

Emily Jungmin Yoon, ‘Autopsy’, from A Cruelty Special to Our Species (2018), HarperCollins, Broadway, New York.

Natalie Diaz, ‘They Don’t Love You Like I Love You’, from Postcolonial Love Poem (2020), Graywolf Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Naomi Shihab Nye, ‘Two Countries’, from Tender Spot: Selected Poems (2008), Bloodaxe Books, Hexham, Northumberland.

Ada Limón, ‘Ancestors’, from The Carrying (2018), Milkweed Editions, Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Joy Harjo, ‘Anchorage’, from She Had Some Horses (1983), W. W. Norton, New York and London.

Writing NSW has commissioned ten Australian authors to reflect on the complex relationship between writing and resilience. This series is supported by Create NSW

Commissioning editor: Kirsten Krauth

Eileen Chong is a poet and the author of nine books. Some awards her work have shortlisted include the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award, the NSW Premier’s Literary Award, and twice for the Prime Minister’s Literary Award. Her most recent poetry collection is A Thousand Crimson Blooms from the University of Queensland Press. She lives and works on Gadigal land of the Eora Nation. 

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