‘So close to the end of my childbearing life
I sat in the café while your friend railed at me
—if you knew you were going to leave why did you try,
and keep trying—he meant for children, of course,
though we did not have them in the end.
Which comes first, blame or consequence?
I sat there, crying, while waitresses tiptoed
around me. One slipped me a napkin. I’d like
to go back. I’d like to have stood up, thrown water
in his face, smashed the plates onto the ground,
and yelled It’s none of your fucking business! I’d like
to have been the woman who made a scene. Instead,
I sat there and wept, unable to find the words
to say how I’d wanted to bear your children,
how much I loved you, and when each of them
failed to draw breath, how parts of me died, too.
My Mother, Painting
My mother sends me an image
of her painting of the week. I reply:
I think the original will be hard to beat.
She spends hours copying masterpieces:
Hopper’s lighthouse, Smithson’s spiral,
Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. When I got married,
she gave us a likeness of me, aged three,
sitting along the five-foot-way outside
our shophouse on Victoria Street.
She didn’t like it. I couldn’t get your face right.
There’s only a blur of beige with pale lips
and dark eyes. My feet are suspended;
I was swinging my legs. She’s painted in
the motorbike belonging to the man
who welded metal bars. Fire sparking
across the pavement; the iron-rich stench
of hot steel. Inside the office, someone
strokes me in the darkness when I hide
under the table. The orange lamps of the altar
burn like witnesses; incense blankets
the air. A finger is pressed across my lips.
Later, in the kitchen, I suck on a lemon lolly
and wonder when I will get more. Bruises
on my thighs. Take up the brush—Prussian
blue, vermillion red. Yet the paint has dried;
the painting is framed. My mother cannot
craft in art what she never saw in life.
These poems were first published in The Lifted Brow #38. Get your copy here.
Eileen Chong is an award-winning Sydney poet who was born in Singapore. She is the author of six books, the latest being Rainforest from Pitt Street Poetry. www.eileenchong.com.au.