Life with Candor and Vitality: Water the Moon by Fiona Sze-Lorrain

Water the Moon

Water the Moon
BY Fiona Sze-Lorrain
(Marick Press, 2010)

Even skimming through Water the Moon, one would notice its gentle pulsation. The poems’ stanza size, their line lengths, start small and grow, undulating between stark white space and a full page of text.

Delving deeper, it does not seem farfetched to claim that Fiona Sze-Lorrain’s first book of poetry has its own heartbeat. In Water the Moon, she has constructed an autobiographical persona: her thoughts and memories are exposed for the audience to make of them what they will. There is a sense of honesty about this — and from that, a charisma — that resonates with the reader: in this work, the reader finds the author herself.

The book is presented in sections, which provide a series of illustrations of the poet as she matures and becomes more attuned to herself and the ways of the world. The first illustration, entitled “Biography of Hunger,” focuses on her family and her past. As the title suggests, a sense of yearning permeates the section. In “Par avion,” a letter

translated nothing but instructions,
Confucian wisdom (One must not sit
on a mat that is not straight
), from
father to daughter, two cultures apart.

— “Par avion,” p. 9

It is the “nothing but” that holds the heaviest feeling of longing. Nothing her father wrote could be seen as an intimate exchange between father and daughter: not, at least, in the way the speaker seems to desire. It is only full of the fragments of “Confucian wisdom” that millions of people already know.

Almost right after, Sze-Lorrain goes on to explore her relationship with her mother:

Two summers ago in Singapore,
I introduced my mother to my 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.

— “A Course in Subtlety,” p. 17

Something important did occur, and the daughter seems desperate to have it acknowledged. The desire for more conventional intimacy — the same kind she wanted with her father — is here, too. At the enjambed line (“and hit / the floor”), the reader cringes. The verb of violence hangs on the end for emphasis, and, sitting by itself on the next line, the noun’s weight is deadening.

The second section, “Dear Paris,” follows the writer’s establishment of her own being — separate, though not severed, from her family — in Paris and in the world. She remains acutely aware of her past and past self, asking the City of Lights, “Am I still seeking / movement and romance?” (“Dear Paris,” p. 23), and then musing on what her father would think of her “lavishing ten euros” (“Breakfast, Rue Sainte-Anne,” p. 27) on sub-par porridge. Eventually, however, there are portraits of people besides her biological family. Consciously, the poet paints descriptions of those who are close to her, like her husband (“Bathing my Husband,” p. 35), as well as strangers and celebrities that garner her attention.

There are epiphanies, too: her own thoughts take over ones imposed by her past. In “A Brief History of Time,” she writes of a man who, propelled by a cultural revolution, realizes in the midst of incredible uproar that “Beauty is in the street. Write everywhere. / Undefined but pure, spirit is the raison d’etre” (“A Brief History of Time,” p. 30). This, in many ways, parallels Sze-Lorrain’s own experience. Alone and young in Paris, she is in the midst of her own personal tumult; she is unsettled and trying to find her place. Falling almost in the exact middle of the book, this statement seems to be a “turn line” for the poet. From that point on, her focus seems to be her present, rather than her past: her writing covers more ground and her spirit — the essence of her evolving self — shines through.

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