Lam’s Enter the Chrysanthemum

My problems with my back have made it impossible to spend much time at the computer, but they haven’t prevented me from fulfilling my pre-Christmas duties (cookies are done, presents are bought, most of the home-made candy is made, I made it to my daughter’s performance at the Tacoma Christmas Revels (though I’m sure I didn’t sound very cheerful while climbing the steep hill back to the car after sitting for three hours).

More importantly, though I’ve found it impossible to sit long enough at the computer to write a reasonable review of Jude the Obscure I am able to sit in my rocking chair and read for reasonable lengths of time, making it possible to read some poetry books that have been waiting for me. So I decided to come back to Jude later and read some poetry. Today I finished Fiona Lam’sEnter the Chrysanthemum, a delightful volume that made reading even more of pleasure than it already was.

I hesitated to cite my favorite poem, the title poem, but when I found it online read by the author



I decided I’d go ahead and discuss it briefly since I found it to be a marvelous poem:

Chrysanthemum

Rolls of rice paper in the corner,
jars of soft-haired brushes,
elegant cakes of watercolour,
black inkstone at the centre.

My mother held the brush vertically,
never slant, arm and fingers poised,
distilling bird or breeze into
diligent rows of single characters.

Hours rippled. Years of practice urged
the true strokes forth-stiff bamboo
now waving in white air, cautious lines
now ribboning silk folds of a woman’s gown.

My favourite of her paintings
was of chrysanthemums. They began
as five arcs of ink, long breaths in the emptiness
alluding to stem and blossom. Then,

from the finest brush, the outline of each petal.
Flesh flowed from the fuller one, tipped
with yellow or lavender, until every crown
bloomed amid the throng of leaves.

If only I had been paper,
a delicate, upturned face stroked
with such precise tenderness.

Initially I was impressed with the concreteness of the poem, the description of the mother’s tools, and the mastery that goes into the calligraphy and drawing the author describes. I’m sure the fact that I have several books, brushes and inkstones on the art of Chinese Brush Painting sitting among my art supplies adds to my appreciation of phrases like “Years of practice” and “precise tenderness,” since I’ve never attained any of those yet.

The precision of the details reflects the precision of the art itself while also suggesting some of the mother’s characteristics, characteristics that are developed throughout the rest of this short volume.

In the end, though, it’s the final three lines, a virtual haiku, that make the poem for me because they succinctly capture the child’s view of her mother.

We learn much more about the narrator’s relationship with the mother, and father, in the first thirteen poems that make up part One of this 82 page edition. They are by far my favorite poems, perhaps because they unfold the child’s complex relationship with her parents with all the beauty of the unfolding chrysanthemums in this first poem.

In the end, though, it’s perhaps the subtle way each of these poems reflects on each other that I most like about this book. This poem, with a slightly different title provides an easy tie, but there are many instances like this:

Chrysanthemum Tea

As a child, I marvelled:
flowers I could drink.
Yellow granules in a yellow tin-
fragrance distilled for the tongue.
Pale gold elixir my mother dispensed
to quell a fever or aching throat..

Years later, I lift a teacup lid
to show my son the dried blossoms
blooming in a steaming collage
of leaves, crimson berries, rock sugar.
An undersea garden for the senses.
In the noodle house’s clang and bustle,
we take little sips of grace.

Of course, you probably can’t appreciate fully how this poem, found near the end of the volume, relates to earlier poems unless you buy the book, but it certainly seems well worth the price to me. I’ll definitely be looking for future volumes.