As the editor of Eileen Chong’s A Thousand Crimson Blooms (UQP, 2021), I became deeply acquainted with the book. As such, I cannot withhold my concern that the charge of a ‘naïvely expressivist approach [that] tends to narrow the emotional and imaginative range of work like Chong’s’ in James Jiang’s review (ABR, July 2021) overlooks important aspects of the book. I believe the key dynamics in Chong’s poetry are dialogic, not expressivist: resistance and connection is how I read them. There is overt resistance to misogyny, racism, and other forms of violence. There is resistance to the grief of childlessness and the silence that meets miscarriage and women’s suffering from it. Resistance of another kind is present in the way that Chong’s lines linger on the physical and sensual textures of daily existence, such as meals eaten with a loved one. This temporal and descriptive slowness re-values such experiences in a manner analogous to certain films (Andrei Tarkovsky’s Mirror, say, or Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love). Chong reconnects to the past lives of language and image through her poetry’s engagement with etymology and the history of art. While such an endeavour undeniably walks the knife-edge of repetition (‘self-glossing’) versus renewal, it matters for poetry to remember the lived knowledge of ancestors and elders. The loss would be ours if no one dared to take this risk.
Judith Bishop, Watsonia, Vic.
James Jiang replies:
I think you have misunderstood the intention behind that sentence, which is not to impute this ‘naïvely expressivist approach’ to Eileen Chong herself but to certain readers of hers. That paragraph begins with the critical position that I hoped the following sentences would challenge, or at least complicate: ‘A Thousand Crimson Blooms is written by a poet whose capacity for eloquence might seem to stem from her intimacy with suffering’ [emphasis added]. The ‘naïvely expressivist approach’ is that which equates ‘eloquence’ with ‘suffering’ without any mediation. The point of the quotation that follows in the next sentence is to suggest that Chong pre-empts this mode of reception (Chong does not offer this dry dictum as a key to her own art, but rather uses it with reference to that of her ‘friendly technician’, who makes sculptures of ovaries). In the offending sentence, I had hoped that the phrase ‘like Chong’s’ would clarify the meaning, namely, that I am referring here to a way of reading her work rather than the poet’s own testimony about how she works. The intention was to save Chong’s poetry from one very narrow way of admiring it; there are other reasons for doing so – as I point out at the end of that paragraph and at the end of that section.
Nonetheless, I think it’s clear, however, that we value different sides of Chong’s poetics. Perhaps there’s disappointment that I hadn’t made more of Chong as a poet of ‘resistance’ (as the book’s blurbs invite us to). I imagine that there are plenty of other reviewers who will be more amenable on this front, and I am happy to leave that well-furrowed field to them.
You’ve provided a wonderfully eloquent defence of one way of reading and valuing Chong’s work, but can I suggest that being Chong’s editor might perhaps give this defence less rather than more weight. There’s a Chinese saying, ‘当局者迷,旁观者清’ (dang ju zhe mi, pang guan zhe qing) that roughly translates as: ‘What’s bewildering to those at play is, to the bystanders, clear as day’.