Festival of All Souls explores the experience of an Asian woman born in Canada. Although neither fully rooted in one or the other, the influence of two different cultures allows heritage, gender and values to nonetheless, enrich a personal vision. The title refers to an Asian ceremony whereby families visit ancestral gravesites in the spring to pay their respects to the departed. During this observance of tribute and commemoration, time is also provided for contemplation and the acknowledgement of renewal that is in harmony with the season. The poetry in this collection is guided by, and ultimately expands upon themes inspired by this ritual: cycles of fullness and loss, expressions of visible and hidden energy, as well as navigations through public and private space. A definition of soul widens to include within our human capacity—plants, animals, minerals, and even weather. Whether leaves pause on the rim of a jade plant bowl, a starling understands Cantonese, or waves lunge like white dragons across Lake Ontario, an invitation is extended to celebrate the diversity of being in this world.
“Jean Eng is an intrepid poet who captures arresting images, and distills the essence in crystalline form. Animal spirits, ancestral voices, and cultural motifs appear at will in Festival of All Souls, enervating the quotidian like the waves of Lake Ontario, and the joy of learning a new language.”
—Carol Barbour, author of Infrangible
“The Festival of All Souls is a delicately crafted debut collection. Jean Eng uses words with the finesse of a fencer, catching the reader unawares. A streetcar ride in the presence of a fruit fly, pivots “(w)ithout warning” to love, resilience, and “the gaudy tenderness of orange// seats.” The Festival of All Souls navigates life’s terrain with clarity, tenderness and a wry, piercing humour. There is not one false note.”
—Mary Lou Soutar-Hynes, author of Any Waking Morning
“Accomplished visual artist Jean Eng’s first full-length collection of poetry, Festival of All Souls, synthesizes her Asian heritage, love of nature, and splashes of surreal imagery with remarkable skill. Her title poem closes with, “the bird understands/ perfect Cantonese”—a whimsical example of how Eng animates her poetic landscape. The reader encounters ghosts, birds, flowers, childhood memories, old loves, and even a feminist inversion of Madame Butterfly (“Lady Dragonfly”) calling for the protagonist to “Become a martial artist instead” and “Practice throwing the poison stars.” This sort of mystical alchemy and dry sense of humour infuses Eng’s work, showcasing a thoroughly original voice.”
—Myna Wallin, author of Anatomy of an Injury
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In the hour of the sickle moon
it floats up against the window
like the rag casing
of what was once body
still fluid in blood dialects
but you can’t tell
which shadow warrior
has sent out a form
to knock, knock
against the glass of your soon-dream.
And you think it’s the spider plant
on top of the wardrobe
broadcasting at an angle
across the night while a timer
goes on and off some lamp-saving
device in the courtyard
but no wind no breeze
is pushing leaves this far
into organic chemistry.
You stare at the morpheus/obvious
rubbing, bumping its way
on the glass. Long tides flow
up and down swimming poolsIt’s coming forward
stopping on seconds
a corner of your dropping mind
the way your mind is now a skylight
and the stars
crack into rings of light years
as the dream catchers open their nets.
Festival of All Souls
Sunrise: a starling on the pavement.
Before dawn scratches through
its membrane of night
a Chinese family gathers in
Birchmount cemetery to
chant names of the dead.
A sphere turns twice.
Music leans against bone.
Ancestors fattened by memory
cross over scented lawns of ceremony
to stand with their tribe.
In the space made by naming
a bird flies
to be swooping here.
One moment: drinking
from the sky’s heavenly faucet
next: seeds of lightning trapped in the throat
and then the singing.
Faces approaching their names.
A sky launched sooner than flight
the bird understands
English as a Second Language
It was a five point three
according to the Richter Scale.
The little tremor. Few noticed
an agitation so minute, it could
have been a power saw or
the foot of a sewing machine
jogging up its avenue of stitches.
Some however, watched cream
in their coffee stir without a spoon
the spoon, quivering on a saucer nearby
like telegrams in séance.
In a class where English as
a Second Language was taught
students shifted from stumbling over
diphthongs; became toast master generals.
Elocution was crisp; the teacher thought
chicanery and tax receipts the true course objective.
Native speech fled; accents tumbled.
Extensive vocabularies erupted.
People rushed to help unstick
double consonants from the roof
of each other’s mouths; loose bits
of good grammar flapped airborne
without paragraph or proper sentence.
Students from Latin America, Indonesia
and Japan recognized the symptoms.
Everyone survived yet mobilized
as a support group. The universal
language was proclaimed
not English—but vibration.
Wavelengths travel faster to the brain
than any degree of fine instruction
speaking of which, the instructor—
briefly ignored during the confusion—
came forward speaking in tongues.
My mother practices English
while I test my Chinese.
Don’t speak too much in public, she advises—
you sound five years old.
Between pidgin English and execrable
Chinese, we manage conversations.
How to spell cheesecake? Eglinton Avenue?
How do you say in Chinese…
You’d think we were foreigners
stranded in each other’s country
learning the customs badly and in
need of a good dictionary.
How spelling Liberal? Conservative? Communist?
When people go up to the mountains
visit dead relatives and have a picnic—
what’s that called again?
L-I-B-E-R-A-L. Ting Meng.
It goes on like this; has been for years.
I could’ve studied Cantonese and she did try
English as a second language. But
when dialogue and vocabulary serve
back and forth; the exchange creates
more than just information.
How are your feelings? If your feelings fine
come home, and I will make you
my beautiful soup.