A Review of Fiona Sze-Lorrain’s Water the Moon

by Taylor Mardis Katz


            What is more appealing than a mélange? The word brings to mind a choice of elements, a mixture of parts hailing from different locations: a medley of possibilities. The constituents of a mélange resist separation, for once placed together, they not only inform, but seep into one another until the parts cannot be separated. The biographical details on the back cover of Fiona Sze-Lorrain’s first book, Water the Moon (Marick Press, 2010), indicate her own species of mélange (born in Singapore, Sze-Lorrain was educated in England and attended Columbia and New York University and before getting her Ph.D. at Paris-IV Sorbonne). Split into three sections, Sze-Lorrain’s book leads readers through the cultures that have shaped her both genealogically and geographically, inviting us to partake in an investigation of the parts that make up the whole of her.


            It is clear that Sze-Lorrain has a deep understanding of human beings, for she begins her book with a poem about food. In the opening poem, “My Grandmother Waters the Moon,” Sze-Lorrain leads off with a list of ingredients for making what Sze-Lorrain calls “mooncakes.” Readers are initiated into the elements that fed the culturally hybrid body of Sze-Lorrain: “Time to transform the mooncakes golden//oven heat for thirty minutes. Her discreet/ signature before this last phase: watering//green tea over each chalked face.” Poems in this section recount other familial incidents as well, such as the receipt of a letter from her father, musings on Mao (a symbol of her homeland), as well as other narrative ventures in stationing herself within the cartography of her ancestry.


            Throughout this book, Sze-Lorrain displays a verifiable aptness for description, which results in lines that stun readers with their musical precision, as in the poem, “Shoebox Filled with Mao Buttons”: “Stubs of sun, deflated saffron orns, scoop up a fistful—/ they chink and clank, megaphones chime The East is Red.” Sze-Lorrain often appraises the landscapes and cultural components that crafted her singular personality, frequently returning to images of the moon that provide the temporal benchmarks of the work. The varied lineation and tone of the poems in this collection also underline Sze-Lorrain’s efforts at experimentation with style and technique, a literary endeavor representative of her own investigation of self.


            It is clear throughout this book that Sze-Lorrain intends to engage in a deep consideration of the cultural elements that account for her personality. By the end of the first section, we witness the collisions between Sze-Lorrain’s Chinese heritage and her adult life in Paris in the poem “A Course in Subtlety,” where Sze-Lorrain introduces her mother to her French husband:


Silence lost gravity and hit

the floor.

She had put on her best purple cheongsam,

spoke in Cantonese

and smoked a cigar, pretending

nothing had happened.


Sze-Lorrain moves between three languages in this book, displaying idiomatic dexterity and a willingness to resist confinement to single world. She allows herself to exist in the interstitial place between cultures and acknowledges the tensions that erupt when one culture collides with another.


            The book’s second section, entitled “Dear Paris,” is for the most part occupied with the sense of taste, as Sze-Lorrain works to present to readers glimpses of the seasoned handprints France has left upon her. Sze-Lorrain gifts us with the flavors of her life in France: the favorite breakfast of her Chinese father, enjoyed on the Rue Sainte-Anne; the event of eating grilled langoustines for the first time, a two-page account of a specialty called “l’assiete des trios amis,” as well as a narration of her love for chocolate. The chocolate poem, shrewdly titled “Privileged,” employs sensual language, anecdote, and a list of brand names to reach a final, sharp conclusion about economics. Sze-Lorrain begins the poem seductively, wooing readers with their illustrative dexterity: “Chocolate/ is sex on the tongue, piece by piece/ pumicing my wet fingers” and the poem’s titular subject matter is not acknowledged until the end. It is no small feat that at the poem’s close, Sze-Lorrain, speaking of a blind beggar she gave a chocolate to, culminates with: “Like tales/ I knew about appetites/ dissolving into tales about hunger—/ holding my tongue,/ I ate nothing the entire day.”


            This abstaining from indulgence is quickly neutralized by poems in the same section that describe Sze-Lorrain’s exploits into fancy French cuisine. By the book’s third section, Sze-Lorrain gains full confidence in the contradictory nature of her selfhood.


It is in the last section where Sze-Lorrain appears most at ease, for she allows herself to frolic with her non-familial influences: the artists that inspire her. Among those mentioned are Van Gogh, Samuel Beckett, Edward Stiechen, and Gertrude Stein. Sze-Lorrain inhabits photographs, prose styles, and the psychic situations of artists she admires. In this section, Sze-Lorrain’s strengthened self-confidence is exhibited through her willingness to occupy even more terrain than her own already-motley reality, as in the poem, “Van Gogh is Smiling”:


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.


The assertive humor and subjunctive rhetoric here imply Sze-Lorrain’s stabilized voice. Interestingly enough, the poems in the first two sections of the book display more formal restraint, whereas in the third part, Sze-Lorrain allows herself to cast her voice out wide, throwing technical restraint to the wind.


            Like a leaf on a breeze, Sze-Lorrain allows herself to be transported by currents. At times throughout this collection, Sze-Lorrain’s straightforward mode of description fails to excite, or her metaphors fall flat, as in such phrases as “rain and dark dreams abounded,” and “Artists unravel new realities.” When she tells us, “For sadness has wings,” in the poem titled “Larmes” (based off of a photograph by Man Ray), the stronger moments in the poem (“Crosshairs distill nebulae./ Shutters open. They spill/ the way memory retells”) are wounded by such platitudes. Throughout the book, tears function as a sort of leitmotif, though it’s hard to tell by the end if all this expulsion of eye-salt has resulted in a stronger character, or one who is more drained.


            The book ends with a poem in the second-person address, titled “Instructions: No Meeting No World.” This three-page piece exhibits long lines and stanzas, and serves as a rubric for living that encompasses the palette (“Cook omelettes with mandarin/ confiture”) as well as more esoteric bits of wisdom: “Kites never soar with tails tied to your touch.” One guesses that Sze-Lorrain is addressing herself in this poem, for it pulls to a close with the admission, “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.” In these last lines of the collection, Sze-Lorrain’s recognition of her imperfect attempts to separate herself from her history is confessed with utter modesty, and readers are left with the recommendation to continue the expedition along their own “shadowed curve.”