Frances Boyle

“like mother like daughter like matter like water”:  Fire Cider Rain by Rhiannon Ng Cheng Hin

Water flows throughout Rhiannon Ng Cheng Hin’s remarkable Fire Cider Rain, with the book’s four sections, titled Evaporate, Condensate, Precipitate and Collect. Water features in many poem titles and in the poems themselves, ranging from omnipresent ocean to storm to “water on tile” (“Seamelt II”). Fire cider, a spice-infused tonic, comes down as precipitation.

Rhiannon Ng Cheng Hin. Fire Cider Rain. Toronto, ON: Coach House Books, 2022.

In the opening poem, “Coefficients of Friction,” the then eight-year-old speaker and her mother, while emigrating from their island home of Mauritius, “resumed their flight rebirthed.” The old and new lands are contrasted, with Mauritius being “an island nation so microscopic, / so disposable // if one thinks of it too fondly, / it may cease to exist / altogether” (“The Laws of Thermodynamics III”), whereas where they end up is “this slated city where children writhe / like crocus buds encased in ice” (“Antipode”).

Both the diasporic experience and mother-daughter relationships are central in the book’s shifting timeline. The speaker harks back to the island and to family histories, turning for comfort and security to a caring lover. She remembers mother and grandmother, through tension, alienation, and loss: “I fear the most painful parts of Māmā have been lying dormant in my sacrum my entire life” (“Dictionaries in the Sand”); “Māmā, why do we speak so little these days?” (“The Laws of Thermodynamics III”); “cordialities littering Wàipó’s funeral” (“Year of the Lamb”).

The intimacy with which Ng Cheng Hin conjures the love and conflicts among these three generations of women is wonderfully skillful, especially given that (as she discussed in a 2023 interview in The Ex-Puritan) her own Chinese-Mauritian heritage is on her father’s side not her mother’s, and while she has visited the island, unlike the speaker of the book, she did not spend her early years there.

The poetry’s emotional resonance is powerful, but equally strong are Ng Cheng Hin’s stylistic choices. Recurring phrases and images such as a milkweed tulle, moths, “corridor in the sky,” and a woman mysteriously exiting an airplane midflight pull threads of connection through the sections. Poems with disparate subjects (a domestic scene between the speaker and her lover Silia v. a dream evoking a swimming hole in Mauritius) are linked by parallel structures and their titles “Dry Season” and “Wet Season.” “Recipe for a Southern Cyclone” starts with a list of ingredients for the titular fire cider, including “a quiet place to mourn,” while the recipe provides instructions for initiating a massive storm by hand, with the refrain “Don’t be alarmed.” “Dictionaries in the Sand” is compelling: like any dictionary, each of a series of English words is followed by a phonetic pronunciation guide and two definitions. The first definitions might be found in a standard dictionary, but the second are scraps of recollection, scenes or thoughts expressed in lush imagery (“three moons, dipped in water, illuminating a flurry of moths as they bury themselves in my bedroom wall”). Looking closely at the phonetic guide, the reader realizes that each “pronunciation” is really a different concept than the defined word: “Rain (n) \ ˈmə-t͟hər \”; “Deposition (n) \ fər-ˈgiv-nəs \.” The shadow words exert subtle pressure on the imagistic definitions.

Ng Cheng Hin brings both a scientist’s eye and a poet’s heart to this, her debut. She seamlessly merges lyricism and searing emotion with latinate phrases and ecological/scientific concepts. The result is an accomplished and evocative collection that promises even greater things to come.


Frances Boyle, in an orange sweater and a long black necklace of many strands, stands in front of the a microphone on a stand; she has chin length white-grey hair and thin-rimmed glasses, and she looks away from the mic to smile at the camera

Frances Boyle’s most recent book is Openwork and Limestone (Frontenac House, 2022). In addition to two earlier poetry books, she is the author of Tower, a novella (Fish Gotta Swim Editions 2018) and Seeking Shade, an award-winning short story collection (The Porcupine’s Quill 2020). She is a regular reviewer with both Arc and Canthius. Raised on the prairies, Frances has long lived in Ottawa on unceded and unsurrended Algonquin Anishinaabeg territory. Visit and follow @francesboyle19 on Twitter and Instagram. [updated in November 2023] Photo credit for headshot: Miranda Krogstad

Skip to content