Friday, July 15, 2011

Water the Moon by Fiona Sze-Lorrain

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

• Publisher: Marick Press, 2009
• Paperback, 88 pages
• Price: $14.95
• ISBN: 978-1-9348511-2-8

How that is that we tend to shy away from that which sees too deeply into us, I don’t know, I can’t say. I have carried Fiona Sze-Lorrain’s debut poetry collection, Water the Moon, along with me for weeks, no, even months. Carried it, set it aside, forgotten it, picked it up again. Drawn to it and drawn away from it.

And why? It is poetry of juxtapositions and paradoxes, of being and not being, of being home and longing for home, and then of losing home and finding home elsewhere. Of being homesick. Of longing for home and never quite having it. I know these things, too. Sze-Lorrain speaks the poetry of immigrants and emigrants and the homeless—and for those who are at home everywhere.

See how I spin. I grow a little dizzy and put the book down again. Only to return later, thinking I must not have been so very drawn to it and next moment underlining, underlining, putting little stars in the margin alongside her lines because they sing so.

Her bio states: “Fiona Sze-Lorrain was born in Singapore, and grew up in a hybrid of cultures. After receiving a British education, she moved to the States, and graduated from Columbia University and New York University before pursuing a Paris IV-Sorbonne. A zheng (ancient Chinese harp) concertist, she has performed worldwide. One of the editors at Cerise Press, she writes and translates in English, French and Chinese. She lives in both New York City and Paris, France.”

With that background of the poet understood, it makes sense that her poems combine so many pushes and pulls. She is able to see the world with the eyes of one who can see as more than one person, one of the benefits of being multi-cultural and fluent in more than one language. The disadvantage is to live within swirl, somewhat as she describes in a poem about Van Gogh, alluding to the swirls of stars like madness in his dark painted skies.

Perhaps that is why, too, she so often mentions the moon throughout this collection—because these multiple ways of being and experiencing the world are like the coming and going of tides. Relentless, infinite and eternal. Cyclical.

In “A Talk With Mao Tse-Tung,” the poet is milling about a cocktail party in Paris, when a Swedish journalist recites Mao Tse-Tung’s poetry, and she is instantly transported back to China. It is as if she never left. Old wounds, ancestral history, surface, and emotion that is now, here, now and not only back in the fatherland, fills that room.

In “Reading Grandmother,” home in Paris and home in China again come together, and the effect is intimate and tender, a little sad, a little tragic, more than a little wonderful.

So the poet sees into layers most miss. “Par Avion” beautifully puts into words what is missed in the words written into a letter that has traveled a very long distance and across a great space, from father to daughter and from one culture to another.

The real message was drowned
on the way, washed by tears
from the sky that blurred
address and date. I could not finish
reading everything because those words,
so measured, so judiciously rendered,
contained no plain voice
that could speak to me in an unflowered
language. Only silence –
ailing with loneliness, a palpitating
heart, sitting between
a window and a door, waiting for more
than a paper response.

The poet’s language is never plain. With her ability to be all things and all places, Sze-Lorrain knows how to speak in simplicity yet express complexity. In one simple sentence she can contain all the noise and confusion and anguish and worry, ad infinitum, of someone who is waiting for a letter that refuses to arrive.

But my mind is like a tree of monkeys.

Really, do you even need to say anything more? Bull's eye, and a vivid and noisy image enters the reader’s mind that conveys it all.

Because a culture is also contained in a nation’s cuisine, Sze-Lorrain writes many food poems. They are luscious:

Eating Grilled Langoustines

for the first time was like chasing
wilderness—simmered with white wine
and garlic dashes, they slipped
through the teeth of my fork like blind
horses running through a gate.

Is this food or is this a whole body experience? Both. As is Sze-Lorrain’s poetry—whole body experience, and a sense of being disembodied at once. Disconcerting as jet lag, but then you find you are there and never left, on that spot, just where you want to be—in the whirling center of luscious poetry.


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