Kim Cheng Boey reviews Water the Moon by Fiona Sze-Lorrain
Water the Moon
by Fiona Sze-Lorrain
In his essay “Transnational Poetics,” Jahan Ramazani argues that mononational narratives of modern and contemporary poetry are inadequate in view of the cross-cultural mobility and rampant border-crossing-and-straddling that many poets of “transnational affiliations and identities” perform. Convincingly, Ramazani traces the beginnings of transnational poetics to expatriate modernists like Gertrude Stein, who announces “America is my country and Paris is my hometown.”
The transnational poetics Ramazani advocates is necessary to understanding the works of contemporary poets with multiple cultural and national affiliations, a good example of whom is Fiona Sze-Lorrain, who like Stein, has made Paris an adopted hometown. Born in Singapore, Sze-Lorrain is an acclaimed gucheng (Chinese zither) whose international performing career from a young age ensures that she is well-travelled and global in outlook. In these exquisitely tuned poems of her debut collection Water the Moon, her musical vocation is translated into poetic terms, the lyric ear trained to capture the subtlest shifts in cadence, weaving into the lyric line a range of geographical and cultural locales and remembrances. Around Paris the collection orbits, including elegies and tributes to Steichen, Arbus, Bonnard, Van Gogh, Man Ray, Picasso, all revealing an eclectic, cosmopolitan passion that seeks to absorb into the lyric influences from the visual arts. Paris and its cosmopolitan air also provides the springboard and counterpoint for the more intimate poems of familial history that return to the poet’s ethnic and cultural roots.
Perhaps the most compelling moments in the collection occur when Sze-Lorrain transplants her cultural inheritance into the international milieu of Paris, mining her Chinese and Singapore past for memories that could mediate between expatriation and loss. These happens mostly in the first part of the triptych that forms the collection; it is primarily memorial in tone and familial in focus. The key figure here is the poet’s grandmother, a presence/absence that is also an emblem of national and cultural origins. The opening poem “My Grandmother Waters the Moon” deploys the culinary trope that is common but vital to Chinese diasporic writing. Here the tradition of making and eating mooncakes is celebrated in absentia – the grandmother is dead and the poet is now displaced from the country where the ritual originated and the other country where her grandmother had made it a special occasion for the grand-daughter. The poem begins with a vivid re-enactment of the ritual, a rehearsal of the grandmother’s mooncake recipe, with the matriarch in the kitchen preparing the ingredients. Then it shifts from the indicative to the imperative, the baking instructions placing the poet and reader squarely in the midst of the grandmother’s domain, revealing memory’s power to transcend time and place. Embedded into the familial narrative is also the historical origin of the mooncake festival; the mooncake was used to conceal messages inciting rebellion against the Mongols during the Yuan Dynasty:
About histories, she is seldom wrong.
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. What is she
imagining again? That someday grasses
sprout with flowers on the moon?
All autumn she dreamt of stealing
that cupful of sky. A snack
to nibble for her granddaughter, the baby
me, wafts of caked fragrance
a lullaby, tucked in an apron, sleeping on her back.
The vignette braids memories of her grandmother and homeland into a lyric that salves the pangs of loss attendant upon taking up an expatriate or emigrant life in the west, evoking a moment of generational intimacy and continuity.
But the nostalgia is not simple; there are also gaps and absences that memory fails to resolves. “Reading Grandmother” grieves over the death of the poet’s grandmother while “Par avion” reveals the physical and emotional distance between father and daughter who are “two cultures apart.” If the grandmother represents the matrilineal heritage that the poet reveres and identifies with, the grandfather is a more remote figure and problematic figure. In “The Sun Temple” the poet is alienated from her grandfather and what he represents – Confucian values and the repressive patriarchal structure that her grandmother was at home in: “I tremble to realise that I can no longer/ remember my grandfather – I am merely a tourist.”
While the first part returns to ethnic and cultural sites, the second suite of poems is located in Paris and deals with the migrant’s narrative of settlement and acculturation. As in the first section, culinary motifs perform a mnemonic and mediating role between the present and the past, Paris and the ancestral homeland. While the culinary images in the first section connect the poet with her cultural and familial origins, the gastronomic tropes here explore the poet’s migrant experience. In “Breakfast, Rue Sainte-Anne” a bowl of Chinese porridge triggers off memories of a more authentic cuisine, and of the poet’s father and the “old rickshaw streets of Shanghai.” The other gastronomic poems – “Snapshots from a Siamese Banquet,” “L’Assiette des Trois Amis,” “Eating Grilled Langoustines,” while finely crafted, are perhaps too conscious of their delectable themes and textures, to offer any memorable insights into the relationship between food and identity. Perhaps the strongest lyric is “Rendez-vous at Pont des Arts,” inspired by Brassaï’s soft-focus black-and-white photograph of the bridge:
Days connect years, years become place —
You travel over dreams or on bicycle.
Will I find you at Pont des Arts?
Moon crossing bridge in vanishing starts.
This is classic Paris, but refreshed and made more resonant by a migrant Chinese perspective, the central image of the moon illuminating a sense of fleeting love and belonging:
The last section, appropriately captioned “The Key is Always Open,” advances the poet’s aesthetic credo. It pays homage to a host of artists and writers, among them Celan, Steichen, Chopin, Van Gogh. The globally encompassing reach reveals the diverse formative and sustaining sources of the poet’s lyric art, and at the same time allows her to transcend her ethnic and cultural origins. “Instructions: No Meeting No World” enunciates a transnational, cosmopolitan poetics above one’s cultural heritage; it counsels “Leave your roots. Leave your ancestors,” as “No life is measured by absence.” The ars poetica embraces a melange of cultural and national sites and practices, weaving them “so that past, present and future/
swells in one immense ocean.”
Water the Moon is a fine example of Ramazani’s “poetic transnationalism,” which allows us to “read ourselves as imaginative citizens of not one or another hermetically sealed national or civilizational bloc, but of intellectual worlds that ceaselessly overlap, intersect, and converge.” There is passion balanced with meditative calm, memory tuned by harmonies of the past and present, and above all a graceful, elegant music in these probing poems of displacement, love, art and loss.
BOEY KIM CHENG teaches writing at the University of Newcastle. He lives in Berowra with his wife and children.