In the strongest poems in Water the Moon, the complex relationships between language and image underscore Sze-Lorrain’s themes of alienation and homelessness in a way that allows the reader to experience both.
Fiona Sze-Lorrain’s new poetry collection Water the Moon is a well-read and well-traveled exploration of the themes of alienation, belonging, and history. The poems capture the essence of what it means to be an expatriate. That is, they give us a sense of what it means to belong nowhere. The collection derives power from its considered appropriation of literature, art and political events in a variety of cultural settings. From Dutch painters to Chinese communist paraphernalia to French cuisine, these poems are enriched and complicated by their references.
One notable theme that runs throughout the book is food. For Sze-Lorrain, food is history and food is a cultural act. She explores the ways in which preparing, eating, and even buying food can either connect us to or alienate us from our history. In the opening and title poem, “My Grandmother Waters the Moon,” the speaker’s grandmother prepares a traditional Chinese dessert. It begins with a list of the ingredients, but the speaker quickly makes it clear that a lot more goes into the confection than red azuki beans, sugar and flour. The act of creating the dessert is for her grandmother also an act of recalling a long history. They are stamped with Chinese characters symbolizing longevity, but they are also part of an espionage plot, a general’s secret war messages hidden inside. The little cookies extend their symbolism into the future, too, as the grandmother is making them for the speaker’s infant self to eat. They thus become, “wafts of caked fragrance,” and “a lullaby,” suggesting that their meaning is at once culturally rooted and changeable, open to interpretation.
History is called upon throughout the collection, such as in “Tibet,” a poem about nationlessness, cultural alienation and confusion. The speaker describes a long journey to a new land, which results in many deaths. Yet, she claims,
Those who perished
built their tombs in those
emphasizing the way in which history lives inside of us. She describes herself as a “painting that parents / no title,” which seems to be a way of saying that she is in some sense nameless, without the anchor of family (note the clever use of the verb “parent.”) Later in the poem, she admits to “burying alive the foreign / name a country / an ocean without roof.” Here there is a sense that the speaker is relinquishing her history and heritage in order to begin again in a new land. Yet there is something unfinished about the process, since the name is “bur[ied] alive.” Of course it will come back to haunt her. Of course it will never truly be buried. The image of the “ocean without roof,” lingers in my mind. The ocean is the in-between, and its lack of a roof indicates that it is not a safe or comforting space. It is open, free, but it is also a place of vulnerability and uncertainty, which makes it a clever and apt metaphor for the immigrant experience.
Perhaps most poignantly in “Breakfast, Rue Sainte-Anne,” the extent of the speaker’s cultural confusion is made apparent. The speaker finds herself eating a traditional Chinese dish in a brasserie in Paris. It is a dish she is familiar with, and she admits to an old habit of playing with her food, as she digs, “a hole, cavernous, right in the middle.” Yet it becomes clear that she does not have a native facility. She confesses, “Today, I still have no idea / how to eat porridge with chopsticks,” and also concedes that her father would not find the dish up to his standards. The speaker knows her father would chide her for spending so much money on something that would cost almost nothing, “in the rickshaw streets of old Shanghai.” Clearly, she is both engaging with her history and breaking from it, both looking backward and moving forward. The tension of this position is readily apparent to her, and the opposition of that image of Old Shanghai against this Parisian restaurant, “New World Pavilion, an air-conditioned crystal glass restaurant opposite a bronze Molière” is as jarring and memorable.
The poems echo with literary and artistic shout-outs to everyone from Van Gogh to Gertrude Stein. Though most locate themselves in either France or China primarily, we stumble upon Darjeeling tea, Italian odes, and German guns. The poems also dance back and forth through time and converse with other artistic mediums ranging from painting to theater. What is consistent throughout the collection is its voice, which is musical and contemplative, treating subjects from World War II to bathing a husband with equal reverence and a sharp eye for the poetic moments in everyday life.
Politics are invoked in many poems, such as “Shoebox Filled with Mao Buttons.” However, the speaker is neither quick to choose sides nor eager to persuade. She is instead intent on pondering the images, on seeking out their deepest meanings. Turning over a button in her hand, the speaker meditates on their uses, as “betrothal gifts à la mode,” and currency, “bartered for steamy pork buns.” Not even the most blatant of propaganda can be easily decoded. Its meanings spin out infinitely under Sze-Lorrain’s delicate touch. There is something hidden and dangerous in the shoebox, but how dangerous? The speaker wonders only briefly, flippantly, “Denounce it?” She doesn’t even seem to be certain what it is she would be denouncing. When she turns one over, she accidentally stabs herself, and thinks, “yes, there is blood tinning on your thumb.” Where does danger reside, and what should we fear? There is no verdict here, just fastidious and gentle observation of the inner and outer worlds and all of the places they intersect.
At certain moments, Water the Moon becomes so entangled with metaphor and figurative language that the reader may be left feeling unanchored. Sometimes it is hard to follow what stands for what, and how we are meant to make this leap. Yet while some of the collection suffers from convolution and abstraction, in the strongest poems, these complex relationships between language and image underscore Sze-Lorrain’s themes of alienation and homelessness in a way that allows the reader to experience both. She takes us to a place between places, calling upon the music of the English language to illustrate the journey.