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Book Review: Water the Moon by Fiona Sze-Lorrain

March 4, 2010

Water the Moon by Fiona Sze-Lorrain

Cover of Water the Moon by Fiona Sze-Lorrain

Fiona Sze-Lorrain was born in Singapore and grew up with a multitude of cultural influences which appear in the poems of Water the Moon. The title of this collection brings together two potent feminine symbols but, just as the moon leaves shadows, it leaves the reader with questions. Who is to bring water the moon and to what end? Can anything grow on that lunar surface? Is the title a command? A dream?

At least some of these questions appear to be answered early in the first section in the poem “My Grandmother Waters the Moon”, a poem which elevates the art of making mooncakes to the same importance as rebellions and battles. This ennobling challenges the devaluation of traditional women’s work yet coming as it does in a chapter entitled “Biography of Hunger” it seems only reasonable. The hungry think mostly of food, after all. In “Shoebox Filled with Mao Buttons” Sze-Lorrain mentions that “[s]tudents bartered [these pins] for pork buns, / a professor swallowed two to commit suicide.” The students use the buttons to fulfill a hunger, the professor to end hungers that could not be fulfilled. We never learn what drove the professor to that extreme. The poem is more impressionistic, more about responses than the atrocities to which the subjects respond. Similarly, in “Tibet” we read of a horrific escape, of people dying in migration: why they must flee we are not told. Sze-Lorrain expects readers to do their own research into the history and with her agonizing descriptions in powerful, sometimes contrastingly beautiful, language she gives us every reason to do so.

Later, in her search for her sister and The Sun Temple, her description of a letter from her father, and her reunion with her grandmother, hunger becomes more metaphorical, a desire for connection. “A Course in Subtlety” concludes:

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.

The second section, “Dear Paris,” moves from Asia to France, though other places are not forgotten. The speaker in “Moon” reconfirms that she does not entirely embrace the culture into which she has immigrated, at least not to the exclusion of others:

Moon

symbolizes fear in my culture,
a dark force that hunts
until you cower.
Since my exile, I learn
to seek her
in the eyes of black dogs
and black nights.

“Breakfast Rue Sainte-Anne” begins with a careful description of food preparation reminiscent of the description of the grandmother making mooncakes but moves on to ask how her father would respond to her sitting there, to the style of the food, and to how much it cost;later poems will revel more completely in gustatory pleasures. Other poems, particularly those dealing with love and history return to the more impressionistic style so prevalent in the first section. The moon appears more often, or it might be more accurate to say that the speaker notices it more often.

The third section, “The Key Always Opens”, is less geographically rooted. That “Mysticism for a False Beginner”, the first poem it contains, refers to relativity gives some suggestion of why. Having immigrated and traveled one comes to see place as relative indeed. What matters here is the feeling, the perception:

Think again about sadness.
Has it become a minimalist sky?
Each tear leaps from the edge
once she nears its edge.

This is what the poet asks of us in “Larmes”, a poem based on a photograph by Man Ray.

Ultimately, what is particularly remarkable about Water the Moon is how much the poet asks of her readers. One could read through these poems quickly and shallowly and still appreciate their lyrical tone. It is that tone, however, which makes one want to know more: to do the research to understand why it might be that if her father speaks of Shanghai, she met up with her mother in Singapore, to understand the history the Mao buttons and “Tibet” reference. Most of all, though, she asks people whose experiences may be quite different from her own to push the boundaries of their empathy and to understand these feelings precisely and in detail. Indeed, Fiona Sze-Lorrain’s work is so powerful that the reader will want to do these things and gladly if only to understand the source of so much lyric beauty, to water the moon by bringing understanding to these verses that already glow.

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