My Funeral Gondola, Fiona Sze-Lorrrain’s stunning second book of poems, is in itself, as the poet writes in her title piece, “an object of meditation.” After her first collection, Water the Moon, comes this new set of radiant pieces as a Mãnoa Books title from El León Literary Arts. Sze-Lorrain has a gift that sets her apart from many of her contemporaries; she threads delicate language with a rare boldness, igniting questions that renew the reader’s usual perception. The book, as a result, has a vital presence.
From her Asian heritage to Europe to New York, and back to France, there is no overlooking Sze-Lorrain’s cross-cultural influence. She carefully extracts rich words from every corner of language. Powerful themes bridge from her previous collection, including family members as prominent figures; the speaker’s grandfather, grandmother and mother acting as pedestrians passing in and out of her memory. Other nature images also draw us in—the moon being extremely present, as well as animals like gazelles and dragons as in her sequenced poem, “Sonata Amorosa,” and in particular the third section, “Transgression.” Yet perhaps her most striking command of language is in her shrewd word choice: she never fails to deliver a subjective world of sensuality, through orchids, classical orchestras, or mussels.
I dipped into cold tea
a lemon tart. A lump of sugar sank
to the bottom of my cup. It was your
body. It was my heart.
Her ability to transform human sentiments such as uncertainty, irony, or restlessness is like giving us the gift of synesthesia: in ’emptiness’ we can taste mussels marinières, in ‘pain’ we see a volcano, in ‘loneliness’ we hear bees multiplying. These profound links are never forced, but subtle and symphonic. She masterfully takes us strikingly outside of our everyday trajectory.
… The fields, say
the ancients, an unwinged sea
of lamps. In the space,
concentric silence expanding
outwards. Into the stillness,
and on into distance. Crickets question
— “Still in the Night Fields of Hokkaido”
Dipping into this lush reflection, we can feel the speaker whittling down life’s fascinating imperfections to compressed images, as in her poem “Trouville, 2011”:
With confused trees and gods, the world is a budget theater.
Repeating the word ‘my’ in certain titles also resonates as a meditative declaration. Sze-Lorrain writes imagined obituaries of things still alive, not simply her own being but of abstractions such as nudity, melancholy, or the year 1980. Then, there are concepts we’ve all harbored in our minds before—such as the eventuality of death or a funeral. Yet the poet has reinvented them. Using ‘my’ as an affirmation, she re-writes these somber moments as surreal but precise events. Each entry forms a luminous encyclopedia of the body and mind. In transforming our perceptions of them, she suggests new ones we have never imagined before.
My coffin is round.
I lie like Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man.
The sound of wild gods drumming in my heart.
— “Notes from My Funeral”
delivers what is important
about my body, between action
and repose, at room
— “My Nudity”
The speaker tries to inhabit an identity within her own sensual purgatory. Just as a meditation allows us to question, Sze-Lorrain questions and then reflects: “What is pride? The image inside us.” She beckons us to peer at a silent film reel projection or a fall into stranger’s unexplainable dream, both dark and breathtaking:
… Ocher moths
over the whiteness
of the screen where trees clutch
the hungry rain, running
after wrong spirits. Someone is making
room for the wind.
— “Javanese Wayang”
But are these pieces ‘dark’ themselves, or do they simply invite us into an unused room in our imagination, where we had previously turned off the light? With that in mind, don’t let the somber title fool you. You’ll be pleasantly surprised to come across Sze-Lorrain’s humor within the melancholy. In “Digesting an Academic Symposium, Some Months Back” for example, she writes, “Someone came with her pet maltipoo, paraded naked with semi-confidence.”
Or perhaps in a moment of fretfulness in New York:
… No one here speaks French
in the right tenses. No
— “117 W. 75th Street”
Throughout the book’s progression, there seems to be a mounting precision and illumination. At first, we experience funerals and the speaker’s own otherworldly death. But in Part III, “Not Thinking about the Past,” the speaker comes back to life. This vitality is perhaps the most confrontational in “Return To Self,” the final piece of the collection: “Some of my friends write from a prison in their mind. I am happy and complete sentences. They ask me why.”
“I know how to live with my ambitions. It has to do with kindness and this confession.” Sze-Lorrain’s pieces exude a compelling wonder and fragility. The poet succeeds in a challenging venture, achieving poems so meditative yet unafraid. My Funeral Gondola seems to be urging us to look in the darkness for the light, something mysterious and luminous behind a heavy curtain. Perhaps we should listen to Sze-Lorrain’s inner voice:
Watch the shadows, not