Monday, December 21, 2009



Water the Moon by Fiona Sze-Lorrain
(Marick, Michigan, 2009-2010)

A Marvelously “Decanted Existence”

As a once active anthology editor and former editor of something called The Asian Pacific American Journal, I’ve read quite a few poems touching on the Asian diasporic experience. And so I came to reading Fiona Sze-Lorrain’s Water the Moon with both anticipation and dread. Anticipation because I’ve enjoyed the writings I’ve previously seen from her, and dread because, to be blunt, I’ve found many poems in this category tend to repeat each other. Well, the book swiftly brushed away my concerns—from almost its first page it became quite welcomed and welcoming. Indeed, with its first epigraph for the book and epigraph for its first section, respectively
Chuang-tzu dreams he’s a butterfly,
and a butterfly became Chuang-tzu.
(--Li Po, Ancient Song)

At the tip of every tongue,
the wind, a chasm—
desire enters the forest.
(--no attribution, which implies Sze-Lorrain might have written this herself)

I immediately wanted more and, while in its early pages, already wished that the book would not end as I swiftly began relishing its experience. In the pages of Water the Moon, I would come to discover (with much relief) the freshness that enervates even the most explored theme.

The collection’s three sections outline a familiar path in diaspora: the young immigrant’s meditations over a birthland (in this case, China), life in new place (in this case, Paris), and the epiphany or various epiphanies from such a history. As a whole, the poems in Water the Moon chart desire’s autobiography in as fully fleshed-out a manner as the most satisfying, robust, long novel. The opening epigraphs attract the reader immediately while also serving their epigraphical purpose. Thus, will one encounter poems about loss but where, like in “Tibet”, desire is a strong presence:
Those who perished
before arriving
built their tombs
in those who escaped

Or this from “A Talk with Mao Tse-Tung”:
Your wife said she was your dog,
whoever you asked her to bite, she bit hard.
Fevered and barking, she devoured hands
and knees. Brought to trial, what
did she bite except her own tongue?

At the same time, many poems reveal how pain affects meaning; in “Par avion,” memory fails and lapses to metaphor from the frustrating attempt to understand:
The real message was drowned
on the way, washed by tears
from the sky that blurred
address and date.

Water the Moon often offers language that is gorgeous, resonant—in a poem like “Fragile,” for instance, the words speak to fragility but, in their clarity, is powerful rather than fragile. Here is a movingly lucid poem:

The sea under our bed
holds immensity for sleepless
hours that belong to last night.
I am moon-fishing while
waiting for you to open
your eyes and cry for light.
Crawling in the sheets, I fear
burying you in my dreams where
your tears drop as water
trickling from the sky, and I am
an instant of devastating white.

The language needs to be compelling not just because it should be in poetry—it seems storytelling, here, relates more to this excerpt in “L’Assiette des Trois Amis”:
…the symbolist poet who defined seeing
as renaming or forgetting the thing one sees?

Sze-Lorrain has achieved something fresh and wondrous with this collection. Each poem tells a story by not relying on story. Through meditation, each poems becomes a story distilled into a larger and yet more intimate significance or, as she puts it in “Mysticism For a False Beginner, “ a “decanted existence.” To decant a wine is to pour from bottle to decanter in such a way as to eliminate the muddying debris from years of storage and/or to awaken the liquid after story to more clearly show its character (flavor, fragrance, etc). “Decanted existence” is one of the effective descriptions I’ve read in poems.

But the marvel of Sze-Lorrain’s achievement is how the clarity from decanting doesn’t result in communicative stability. Her poems simply dispel mist from meditation, bolstering lucidity in one’s necessarily ongoing engagement with the past ever-present in the future:
What isn’t relative? insists Einstein

The answer is like a door.
When you open it, the rain has stopped.


Eileen Tabios does not let her books be reviewed by Galatea Resurrects, but she is pleased to point you elsewhere: two reviews of her first 2009 book NOTA BENE EISWEIN -- one by Grace C. Ocasio at at Jacket 37 and the other by Joey Madia at New Mystics (July 2009). Her second 2009 book FOOTNOTES TO ALGEBRA was also reviewed recently by Jesse Glass at Ahadada. You also might check out Jean Vengua's engagement of one of her poems from THE BLIND CHATELAINE'S KEYS over at YouTUBE! Last but not least, she just -- just! -- released a chapbook in time for holiday gift-giving: ROMAN HOLIDAY.

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