Eileen Chong is a Sydney poet. She was born in Singapore where she studied and taught before moving to Australia in 2007. She is currently completing a Master of Letters at Sydney University with a focus on poetry. Her writing has been published in literary journals such as Meanjin, HEAT Magazine, Mascara Literary Review, Softblow, Hecate and Quarterly Literary Review Singapore, with a poem forthcoming in Overland. Her work has also been selected for Black Inc’s Best Australian Poems 2010, to be published in November 2010. In 2010 she was awarded the Poets Union Youth Fellowship for 2010–2011. A chapbook of her poems will be published in mid-2011 with the assistance of Australian Poetry Ltd.
When In Rome
You went to Rome on your own
all those years ago. Your maps sat
on the shelf in your mother’s house,
creased, yellowing. We lay
on your old bed that afternoon
and you traced a flight path
down my arm. It’s not somewhere
you want to be alone, you said.
We took a room on the top floor
of the hotel. There was a balcony
that overlooked the cobblestoned lane
that rang like an ironsmith’s
each time a woman strode past
the shops towards the piazza. We
stopped for coffee but did not sit.
You clutched a map but didn’t need it.
I was here, you gestured
at the fountain, it’s for lovers. I looked
to see its beauty but saw only
tourists fingering cameras, myself
included. I let my hands drop
into the flow and laughed
at how cold it was. You kissed me
on the side of my salty neck.
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 drank warm
oil. The man behind the counter
asked where we were from. Paradise.
You should visit one day. He shook his head.
At the markets we bought
red-stained cherries. I carried
them in one hand and your
years in the other. Each step
we took overlaid each step
you’d taken. In our room, I washed
the fruit in the bathtub. They floated
like breasts, free and heavy.
What Winogrand Said
“I photograph to find out what something will look like photographed.”
So we write. We write
not because we don’t know
what it is we’re writing about,
stuck in our rooms at our desks
with a window facing
the park, the sea, a bricked-up
wall beyond which neighbours
scream at one another well
past midnight. We write because
we’re finding out what
the woman with the cigarette
on the bus felt when she was told
there was no smoking on the bus. What
the young man on the street corner
really wanted with his outstretched
hands and naked, vulnerable neck.
We write because all things
are writable. Nothing
is sacred. Not even the memory
of your mother’s pale leg
propped up on the wet stool
as she washed, you, too young
to turn from the dark flower
at the juncture of her thighs. The scent
of her breast: pillowy, milk-full.
The first time you reached down
and put him inside of you,
even though he, seventeen
and bare-faced, said for you
not to. We don’t know
if all things in our poems
are beautiful, but we do know
that things can be beautiful
in our poems. Or cruel. Lies,
all lies, some say, but really,
we write because it’s not about
what the thing is, at all.
It’s about what the thing becomes
in the poem. It’s about the poem.