Book Review by JL Kato
Title: Water the Moon
Author: Fiona Sze-Lorrain
Publisher: Marick Press
Release date: November 29, 2009
ISBN 10: 1-934851-12-4
ISBN 13: 978-1-934851-12-8
The poem “My Grandmother Waters the Moon” combines Chinese cuisine and history. In the narrative, we learn that the “moon” is a small cake, with green tea poured over it. But we also learn that in A.D. 1368, Chu Yuan-chang had messages secretly baked into moon cakes instructing rebels to push back the ruling Mongol armies on a certain date. That revolt was the beginning of the Ming Dynasty. So, besides being a delicious snack, the moon cake nourishes a need to define a cultural identity. And that’s how most of the poems reveal themselves in Fiona Sze-Lorrain’s first collection, Water the Moon. Bite into the rich imagery, the sensuous texture and the hypnotic rhythms of the language, and the hungry reader is more than likely to devour unexpected pleasures.
That transformation is described in “Claustrophobia,” in which the narrator voices her discomfort with a painting. Here’s how her husband changes her opinion of the artwork:
Why did he place it in our bedroom?
Once he saw how I skulked past it,
perspiring and tense,
a startled prey,
he took my trembling hands and sat
down with me.
Sipping a cup of hot Darjeeling tea,
he waited patiently for cherry blossoms
to flower hilly before us,
white pigments to melt into snowflakes.
Water the Moon is divided into three sections. The first, “Biography of Hunger,” concentrates on her childhood family and Chinese heritage, including the lingering effects of Mao Tse-tung (though Sze-Lorrain was born in Singapore and would have barely remembered Mao, if at all). The second part, “Dear Paris,” delves into her Paris milieu (the Columbia University graduate now lives in France). The third section, “The Key Always Opens,” pays homage to such artists as Van Gogh, Jean-Baptiste Auguste Clésinger or Edward Steichen. (Sze-Lorrain plays the piano and guzheng, or Chinese zither.)
The third section is the most entertaining. Here, Sze-Lorrain opens up and has some fun with the language, even on occasion using puns. For example, in the third section, tears or crying act as a leitmotif:
■ In “Mysticism for a False Beginner” (about Einstein’s Theory of Relativity): “Tears. Salt that anoints, contains a life/and can redeem. Tears imagine/themselves as rain, drops from the sky/flowering into light.”
■ In “Larmes” (based on a photo by Man Ray): “Each tear contains a lake.”
■ In “We’ll Always Have Her” (about Edith Piaf): “Ashen roses, she sings as Paris skies. Tears/dismantle sleep and fall as autumn leaves.”
■ In “Apologia to Dora”: “Guernica, Guernica … where is our Weeping Woman?”
■ In “A Lot Had Happened: A Five Act Play” (channeling Gertrude Stein): “That is a cry that cries and cries a cry. Someone is crying that cries the cry of many cries./That is the lady who is crying./Can you see her tears? They tear and tear the tears of many tearing tears./A tear in a cry and a cry in a tear. A tear with a cry and a cry with a tear./A cry tears./It is tearing.”
The last two poems of the collection, “Stage Fright” and “Instructions: No Meeting No World,” seem to chronicle the artistic maturation of the poet and musician—nagging self-realizations that give way to confidence. With its three-part structure, Water the Moon journeys from Asian past to Paris present, then bridges the two with meditations on cultural icons, concluding with the poet’s hopeful place in the pantheon. Applaud this audacious, shoot-for-the-moon mentality.
For a sample of Fiona Sze-Lorrain’s poetry, check the Tipton Poetry Journal’s web site at http://tiptonpoetryjournal.com/tpj11/aart.htm. Writing under the nom de plume Greta Aart, her poem “The Way Faith Happens” appeared in the Fall 2008 issue.