Lens Flare by Benedict Andrews and Peony by Eileen Chong reviewed by Geoff Page
By Benedict Andrews
By Eileen Chong
Reviewed by GEOFF PAGE
It is often difficult when writers change from one literary genre to another. Reviewers — and writers in the encroached-upon form — are quick to “guard their own turf”. Benedict Andrews, in his first poetry collection, Lens Flare, arrives with a strong reputation as a theatre writer and director, both here and overseas. His first collection of plays is due out later this year.
As a first collection of poetry, Lens Flare is, in some ways, not unlike other poetry debuts. It exhibits a considerable range of concerns and techniques — and varies, perhaps inevitably, in quality. At the centre is a truly remarkable sequence of poems called “The Rooms”, of which more shortly. Bookending this are two sections which are decidedly more uneven. The first centres around (but is not confined to) Iceland, which has recently become Andrews’ main place of residence. The poems here range from the graphically erotic love sonnet, “Teufelsberg” to much more tentative poems such as “Rás 1” which starts out with the somewhat prosaic short lines: “Driving around / in the rain / listening to / scratchy jazz / on the radio // Magga says, / it’s getting dark / earlier and earlier …” “Scratchy jazz” is an evocative phrase but there’s not a lot, other than simple exposition, happening in the rest of the sentence.
The closing “bookend” of Lens Flare starts with the ten-part sequence, “Kodachrome City”. It varies considerably in techniques and degree of accessibility but is probably more consistent than the book’s opening section. In “Operaen”, a later poem, we have a good example of what some readers will see as a highly original image and others may see as spuriously melodramatic. “The sky, that well-fucked whore, sheds her sequin dress. / Lipstick smeared, petrol wet, / she strikes a match.”
As mentioned earlier, what truly distinguishes Lens Flare is its central, 35-page sequence, “The Rooms”. With two ten-line poems per page, we are given a powerful, almost encylopaedic rendering of the guests (and their activities) in a contemporary, relatively upmarket hotel. It could be anywhere in the developed world (though some details suggest a tropical location) and has a similar comprehensiveness to the “Prologue” of Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, more than six hundred years earlier. Like Chaucer, Andrews casts a mordant but compassionate eye on what is happening in his particular microcosm.
Sexuality plays a big role, of course, but the situations of Andrews’ protagonists are various — from illicit ecstasy to acute loneliness. The profound superficiality of much of our contemporary culture, sexual and otherwise, is sometimes hinted at — and sometimes shockingly embodied. “Room 104” is a typical example. Its last eight lines are suggestive of quite a few other poems in the sequence and yet Andrews avoids any inadvertent repetition: “Soon there’ll be a ring from reception, / a man will knock, kiss her twice and step in. / Sipping champagne, they’ll watch fruit bats mass / above the gardens, they’ll tongue each other, / strip, make the room stink of wine and musk. / They’ll hack into each other like cannibals. / They’ll fuck until they can’t think any more. / So she reckons, rearranging her reflection.”
One can sense Andrews’ theatrical experience at work here — the way it’s all set in the near future (a common dramatic device these days), the detail of the fruit bats and so on. Each of the ten line poems is a kind of mini-play — or mini-masque — but their cumulative impact is hardly short of overwhelming.
In “The Rooms” there are many things we need to know about the sadness and delusions of our contemporary culture — and other things we would probably prefer not to hear. There are numerous, very telling couplets scattered throughout. One from “Room 203” is an example. “Jesus, money evaporates. On the fresh sheets, / his wife’s caressing limbs scratch like twigs.” Again, Andrews’ theatrical experience comes through when he writes of an actor: “Faces upon faces are laid on his. / A palimpsest of worn out masks. Truer lies.”
“The Rooms” is a very convincing presentation of how much we differ and how much we are the same. It’s also a disconcerting look at where we stand at the moment — and where we might be headed. If the whole of Lens Flare were at this very high standard it would be one of this country’s most compelling first collections in the last few years.
Eileen Chong’s second collection, Peony, has many virtues, an almost accidental one of which is to remind us of how far we’ve come, multiculturally. There was a time, say the 1950s, when the typical Chong poem would have been unbearably exotic. As readers, we would have demanded footnotes and glossaries and resented being pressed too hard. Now, in 2014, we are at ease with most of her references; we feel (perhaps wrongly) that we half-know what she’s talking about already.
Peony falls neatly into four sections, only the first of which is “hard core” Chinese. Here we are treated to the Chinese feelings for food, family (children and grandparents, in particular), revered ancestors and the long history of the Middle Kingdom. Some of the poems are recipes in disguise (and this is not a criticism). The first few poems, mainly about Chong’s grandmother, remind us how quickly things have changed not only in mainland China but throughout the Chinese diaspora. “My grandmother cannot read / the words dancing across the screen, / lighting up in time with the music. // She sings from memory, / in the dialect of her youth …” (“Chinese Singing”). The poems here also remind us of the persistence of Chinese customs, a few of which we have come to know about or have even partly assimilated.
The remaining three sections (excepting the book’s final poem) are, for the most part, more “mainstream” but the Chinese dimension persists even though the contexts (overseas travel, domestic life etc) are different. Chong’s poetry, for the most part, has a plain-speaking aspect to it — and a delicacy which we can recognise as Chinese, even if such qualities are not unique to that culture and not all Chinese embody them.
It needs to be insisted upon, however, that Chong’s ambitions range well beyond mere acceptance as a “multicultural” poet. In Part II, for instance, there are several love poems which have a compelling, low-key eroticism, often in the context of a more general sensuality. The poem,“When in Rome”, has Chong recalling how: “In the darkness of the providore / we stood and breathed in / the brine of the meats, the ripeness / of olives. We learnt the true names / of prosciutto. We tasted the warm / oil. The man behind the counter / asked where we were from. Paradise. / You should visit one day. He shook his head.”
As well as the celebration of the sensuous here, there is also a jokey understatedness which many of us like to think of as Australian. The one-word description of Australia as “Paradise” is a joke in itself — which the Italian shopkeeper may or may not have understood. The whole episode has a nice ambivalence — and artistic sophistication.
Another sign of this range and complexity is Chong’s political and social awareness. “Freeman’s Lobotomy” is a graphic rendition of an outdated, rougher-and-readier treatment for mental illness than the more subtle ones we have today (which remain less precise than we might wish). Chong has her surgeon’s monologue ending with: “All done. Withdraw the pick / and wipe it clean. Thank you nurse. / The patient will need nothing / but a pair of dark glasses. Tomorrow / we shall see how much better she is”.
Peony is a highly accessible and often moving collection which deserves, and may well obtain, a wide readership.
GEOFF PAGE is a Canberra-based poet and critic and the editor of The Best Australian Poems, 2014. His New and Selected is published by Puncher and Wattmann.