Water the Moon by Fiona Sze-Lorrain

Marick Press, 2009

Reviewed by Janelle Elyse Kihlstrom

Fiona Sze-Lorrain's first poetry collection Water the Moon reads like a journey through an internal landscape, where experiences flattened by memory are reanimated in the imagination with an earnest traveler's curiosity and affection and an émigré's desire to alternately root, uproot and return.

The first of three sections, “Biography of Hunger,” seems the most urgent in tone, although its subject matter feels the most remote from the speaker. Poems like “Shoebox Filled with Mao Buttons” and “A Talk With Mao Tse-tung” ask questions of a past that has already eluded too many questioners.

In the latter poem, after resigning herself to the notion that "Clearly history has no last word," the speaker interrogates the ghost of Mao directly, "Do you see immortals in golden robes?/ Do you dream of dead kingdoms?" The speaker asks these questions more for the sake of the present and future (including her own and her readers', since we are implicated in the word “your” in the final line of the former poem) than for what is trapped in the past and cannot be saved or brought to light.

“Mao becomes money under a torchlight,/ his mole is art, postmodern aesthetics, the rust is a lie./ Denounce it? Flip one over, needle enjambed,/ hook still knifing, yes, there is blood tinning on your thumb.”

Although the owners of these buttons are not identified, the blood is tinning on your thumb.

These lines are also a good example of what Sze-Lorrain does with structure and wordplay (“enjambed,/"; “tinning”) and her seamless technical accomplishment and attention to detail are evident throughout the collection.

Sze-Lorrain is most compelling, however, when she is being least polished and most direct, even though her directness often veers into wistfulness; but it is a genuine wistfulness, not an affected one. Some of her Asian-themed poems pay homage to classics in their use of familiar tropes and syntax. As in Li Po, who provides the collection's epigraph, the muted longing is palpable in these poems, yet Tom Waits's contemporary koan seems perfectly at home in them.

In “New Growth,” the last poem in the first section, she writes:

Still no letter. Autumn wind, trees toss. I am planting bluebells and chrysanthemums. Forsythias and magnolias, for tomorrow. But my mind is like a tree of monkeys. Crunched peaches litter the soil. Leaves rain down hard when these monkeys gambol. Why put flowers on flowers’ graves? a koan you mused when I sang Tom Waits tilts my mind each time you disappear. How many miles from heart to hands?

The second section, “Dear Paris,” is, as the title suggests, a love letter to the city from a newcomer's perspective, and who but a lifelong resident isn't a newcomer in a city with so many centuries of art and culture to try to absorb in one lifetime?

The poem “Eating Grilled Langoustines” is a charming and funny newcomer's anecdote, but other poems in this section tend a bit toward, as the speaker phrases it in the final line of that poem, “pretending to savor without toil.”

The stand-out poem for me in this section and one of the best poems in the book is “China,” a furious yet sparkling satire on the contemporary concept of “Asian fusion” in the context of the centuries-old commodification of Asian culture (including Asian women) in Western societies like Paris. It begins:

A waiter pours hot chocolate from the silver. Narrowing his eyes, he smiles at me and says, Your Eurasian visage matches our decor. Please cross a bridge to find your table. This place has a name: Moon Palace. High mountains falling waters, such grace is exquisite.

The final section, “The Key Always Opens” is about finding a real home, and, unlike the previous sections, its focus is not geography but the lives and work of artists of various genres. What the subjects of these poems have in common is that they are artists, and it is among this flawed, disparate group, accessible through their work yet unknowable, that the speaker of the penultimate poem, “Stage Fright,” is placed, although her position is unnervingly tenuous:

Finally I caught a glimpse of him, how he never ceased to wipe cold sweat off his forehead, rummaging through his fur coat, checking at all times that the wrong notes I had played would stay intact in the pockets. That was when I realized the storm would not subside, I would not stay for long. I was a surfer riding on waves that were never mine.

Be that as it may, earlier in the poem, we witness an artist finding a niche, not only because her performance draws acclaim despite her self-doubt (“Cries of encore beat like rain/ on the roof of a straw hut.”) but because the concrete medium of the art itself offers sanctuary (“... I steered towards/ my zither, the instrument/ a monastery, ready to shelter the returning/ pilgrim...”)

The strong final poem is relatively long, at three pages, and is one of the collection's more experimental in that it is one long list of imperatives directed inward but once again, with its "your," implicating the reader as it cuts to the heart of what makes and unmakes an artist who has made a home in transit, mastering languages that preserve yet obscure the authenticity of subjective experience:

Leave your roots. Leave your ancestors. Leave the weight that drains your limbs and takes away your throat. No life is measured by absence. All your youth, you tried using words to shape memories until they danced and balanced on straight lines. Yet, you flee — with a bleeding heart, you flee all your life along a shadowed curve.

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 Ph.D. at Paris IV-Sorbonne. An accomplished zheng concertist, she has performed worldwide at various prestigious venues. Her CD, "In One Take" ("Une seule prise"), was released in 2009. Her recent book of nonfiction, Silhouette/Shadow: The Cinematic Art of Gao Xingjian was published by Contours in 2007. An editor at Cerise Press and co-creator of Vif éditions, she writes and translates in English, French and Chinese. She lives in both New York City and Paris, France.