Embodied Poetry: Fiona Sze-Lorrain's Water the Moon
Water the Moon by Fiona Sze-Lorrain
Marick Press, 2009 (88 pages)
Marick Press, 2009 (88 pages)
On the back cover of Fiona Sze-Lorrain's debut collection, Water the Moon, Robert Kelly points us toward the way Sze-Lorrain portrays "all her varied homelands," claiming that she "invokes the Asia she comes from by making her Europe just as precise, exactingly demanding, accurate." What Sze-Lorrain achieves in these poems, however, is far more than an invocation of the locations in which she's lived and visited. These poems are actually filled with a whole host of people, both familiar and strange, and Sze-Lorrain manages to capture humanity in deeply embodied, often sensual detail.
The opening poem, "My Grandmother Waters the Moon," introduces us to two of the collection's major threads: family and food. The poem's epigraph is a list of ingredients, and Sze-Lorrain walks us through this grandmother's process of making mooncakes in a way that shows us not only the food, but also the details of the grandmother's thoughts and working fingers.
In the closing lines of this poem, we see the grandmother in relationship to the speaker and in vivid, quotidian form: "A snack / to nibble for her granddaughter, the baby // me, wafts of caked fragrance / a lullaby, tucked in an apron, sleeping on her back." In the poems that follow, we encounter more familial characters: a sister who asks to be cut away, a deceased grandfather who has faded in memory, a husband being bathed by his wife, a mother meeting her foreign son-in-law for the first time. These people are described in detail, yet the way they are labeled with only these relational terms makes them feel universal—somehow these characters come to represent my grandmother, my deceased grandfather, and my husband as well.
Woven into and around these poems of family are poems that are populated by familiar famous people. Some of these people are briefly and casually mentioned, as in the poem "New Growth," in which the speaker recalls singing Tom Waits. Other poems in this collection treat famous figures at length, even using direct address to speak to them. "Van Gogh Is Smiling" begins, "Let's suppose you are perfectly normal, / whatever normal is—no absinthe, / no depression, no syphilis, no epilepsy, / you see yellow as the normal yellow." This poem uses the anaphoric repetition of "Let's" to begin the stanzas that follow and to walk through Van Gogh's life, acknowledging his trouble and despair while also celebrating his talent and hyper-perception. In this way, Sze-Lorrain manages to make Van Gogh and other famous figures new for readers. Such people are presented as real, physical beings, accessible for conversation and as much a part of everyday life as the family members around them in this collection of poems.
Alongside these familiar figures, Sze-Lorrain also depicts strangers with impressive visual clarity. In "Breakfast, Rue Sainte-Anne," the speaker observes the chef's body while she watches him prepare a pork dish: "Sinews on his scrawny neck as taut as / guitar strings, the chef spreads a gauze / of soy-sauce around the heap, the circle / like a brush stroke of Zen calligraphy." This intimate view of the chef's neck makes this stranger familiar; we are not let into his thoughts, but we see how he concentrates and makes food that is also art. In "Instructions: No Meeting No World," Sze-Lorrain brings to life more unnamed strangers with her vivid descriptions. In a Chinatown setting, we see "a bald / street musician who plays exile or hunger / on a snake-skinned banjo with a toothless smile," and later in the poem "A one-armed gypsy walks on shoes / that gossip. Her laughter carries wind and an animal. / Her eyes devour your back until you make a turn." These characters appear only briefly, but they make the locations in which they're portrayed come alive by evoking larger narratives and human realities beyond the scope of these poems.
Because many of these poems feel so intimate with their depictions of people simply living—cooking, bathing, playing music—the moments of self-awareness that draw attention to language and artifice at first seem out of place and strangely distant. "Steichen's Photographs" contains once such instance in which language becomes the subject of the poem: "Photos have no verbs, the lamp insists to me. / Verbs are those trying not to pose, / not necessarily natural, but in active mode." The poems "China" and "Along Ludlow Street" both use traditional forms, the sestina and the villanelle, which include intense repetition of words and whole lines, and Sze-Lorrain's homage to Gertrude Stein in "A Lot Had Happened: A Five Act Play" is packed with Stein-like word repetition that highlights sound over sense. In such poems, however, the connection between Sze-Lorrain's embodied characters and her occasional linguistic self-awareness becomes clear: these moments that focus on language capture the poet herself in her writing. Rather than maintaining distance, they allow us to participate intimately in the process of artistic creation. Her familiar figures are familiar to us, her closely observed strangers stand before us too, and these poems ultimately allow readers to become one with the poet.
Katie Manning is Editor-in-Chief of Rougarou and a doctoral fellow in English at UL-Lafayette. Her poems have been published in New Letters, PANK, Poet Lore, So to Speak, and The Sow's Ear Poetry Journal, among other journals and anthologies, and she is the 2011 winner of The Nassau Review's Author Award for Poetry.