A playful, Zen-like clarity and gentleness characterize the poems in Fiona Sze-Lorrain’s new book, along with a distinct sense of an animating mystery. The world here is at once deliciously material and refreshingly ethereal. This is an engaging collection, resonant with promise and presence.
—Peter Cole, author of Things on Which I’ve Stumbled and The Poetry of Kabbalah
In My Funeral Gondola, Fiona Sze-Lorrain opens her astute ear to the “Cryptic shapes of yes and no.” Less lamentation than musical questioning procession, this exquisite collection sounds a counterpoint of firmament and terra firma, “an air / between real and improvised time.” Sze-Lorrain imbues her poems with a plaintive beauty; her language with a subtle complexity as faceted, as dazzling, as a “thousandfold sun and a clarity frozen.”
In a trance cast by the flickering shadows of woods and sun, a coffin rides the dark waters of the imagination. So, too, these exquisitely beautiful and frightening new poems by Fiona Sze-Lorrain navigate the swells of loss. It is said that grief is our most dangerous emotion, eliciting from us the desire to follow our loved ones into death. Yet not much is said of the dying one does in life in response to it: "I settle where the wind / blows me. From one state of gratitude / to another province." This is not romantic reaction (not “Liszt,” not “Wagner,” the poet writes), but a matter of the distance one must achieve to imagine mortality: “like a fly / diving into a bowl of black / rain.” I recognize this speech, haunting and strange, the speech of true poets, who surface from the pain place irreparably changed.
In moving poems that affirm the power of language—
“Say orchids. (You’re orchids.)
Say the forbidden. (You’re the forbidden.)”
—Fiona Sze-Lorrain journeys through shifting places and times, deaths and imagined deaths, with sharp, lyrical insight.
My Funeral Gondola by Fiona Sze-Lorrain
Reviewed By Stephanie Papa in The Rumpus
May 25th, 2013
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
Stephanie Papa is a writer and teacher living in Paris, France. Originally from Pennsylvania, she studied literature and French at Wagner College in New York. Her work has been published in the Prose Poetry Project and 5×5 magazine. She also organizes the Writers on Writing program, a series of readings with international writers in Paris.
What We’re Reading: My Funeral Gondola
2013 June 13
My Funeral Gondola by Fiona Sze-Lorrain (Mãnoa Books 2013)
Despite the dark title, My Funeral Gondola by Fiona Sze-Lorain is much more meditative than dark. Sure, there are poems about the speaker’s death, and funeral—but even those have more wonderment about them than anger or loss. That’s not to say there is no sense of loss—there is a child who left the world too early that haunts the speaker, and there is healing that is needed. But the poems don’t stay on a purely meditative level; rather, Sze-Lorrain captivates us with her surprising use of pithy humor, sensuality, and bold honesty.
These are sparsely written poems, and Sze-Lorrain is an expert at utilizing white space to help the reader find echoes of their own thoughts between the pages. As she writes herself in one of the final poems, “Return to Self”, ”The whiteness of this page can’t appease my hurt.” This emptiness resurfaces in unexpected moments, and we plunge through the meditative level down to the depths of grief. Another one of the poems where we feel this grief completely is “Trouville, 2011.” It starts with “By the seas the past comes tiding from toes to fingers. Rising or falling, we hear the break of us. We come to heal because a child left us,” before launching into the speaker building sand castles with soldiers in a mini-opera. Juxtaposed with this child-like activity of making sandcastles, and allowing the speaker and reader a sort of distance from reality, the poem finds its mark at the end with “Do you really know how to feel empty. Nine times out of ten, it is an accident. One sand castle falls, then more. And all.”
The rhythm and tone of the overall collection is lyrical, but with some surreal dream-like moments that capture the imagination. While there are more questions asked than answers found, there is a sense of peace that feels therapeutic. The questions in this collection aren’t usually marked with a question mark; instead, they end with a period, or in some cases, no punctuation at all. These are questions that the speaker simply does not have the answers for, because some questions are too heart-breaking. But instead of utter despair, there is a sense of acceptance of these unanswerable questions that the speaker wrestles with throughout. As Sze-Lorrain writes in the poem “Now Meditate,” it’s about letting go of what can’t be controlled (like death): ”Let it go, / this chestful of sky. / My stomach turns from stone / to birds.”
The subtle dry humor sprinkled throughout pleasantly surprised and lifted me out of the even-keeled emotional plane of meditation, or the echoing depths of loss. One of the funniest poems, “Digesting an Academic Symposium, Some Months Back,” turns a wry, observing eye to the ironies of academics. Other humor is nestled unexpectedly in the arms of something deeper, lightening the mood, but always finding a smart observation of the world.
There are many common threads that keep resurfacing throughout the poems. Sze-Lorrain writes across cultures, bringing in French, Italian, Chinese, and African influences, among others. This is not surprising, as Sze-Lorrain herself is multi-lingual and has frequently translated other authors’ and poets’ work into or from French, Chinese, and English. Perhaps due to the fact that she is also a zheng harpist, many of the poems reference musical terms and tonalities. Additionally, as a practiced orchid healer, Sze-Lorrain’s poems often refer to the flowers and the healing process in general.
The speaker’s husband resurfaces throughout, and through many of these references, sensuality and sexuality are explored in a very visceral way. In the poem “Pearl,” she marries sexual tension with a sense of old love: ”My tongue / gagged. I dipped into cold tea / a lemon tart. A lump of sugar sank / at the bottom of my cup. It was your / body. It was my heart.” Not only is there sexual tension, but in many of the poems, her enjambment leaves a subtle tease at the end of each line. Her honesty that we, the reader, sees, but the other characters in the poem sometimes don’t, makes us feel lucky to be let in to her world. This ebb and flow of teasing and admittance into a secret place, fully captured my attention. In the poem ”Before the Museum of Waiting,” she employs both of these tactics for an excellent result, as seen in this excerpt:
There hangs the window where I spent my twenties,
living between cigarettes and unfinished
fiction. I learned Vivaldi’s concertos
by heart and stopped writing
letters to my Jewish godmother. Sometimes,
the city woke up
before kiosks opened.
My newspaper never arrive on time.
Walking past this brownstone, you ask if I miss
this life in parentheses,
shortchanging sincerity with plans
and auditions. I dip my finger
into your gelato, and pretend to think
hard. Wondering if our tall
rosewood highboy still wobblesbehind the curtains, I guess there needs
no answer for the past.
This is a book that stays with you past the last poem. The collection’s contained emotional weight and balancing act of humor, loss, and acceptance prove the poet’s impressive skill.
Sze-Lorrain currently lives in France. She is an editor at Cerise Press, and has a previous poetry collection published entitled Water the Moon.
What other poets balance multiples sensibilities such as deep loss with wry humor, or meditation with surprises?
Solving a riddle with a harp and the magic of words
By Kelly Chung Dawson in New York (China Daily)
As the daughter of diasporic Chinese parents in Singapore, Fiona Sze-Lorrain spoke both Chinese and English at home. From a young age, her Chinese heritage signaled discipline and tradition. In accordance with her parents' wishes, she studied the guzheng, a classical Chinese instrument, and at age 9 made her performance debut at Singapore's Victoria Concert Hall. Later, she went on to perform at Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center for audiences that included Bill Clinton and Princess Diana. But at the time, she was simply following the rules.
At school, her composition assignments were in Chinese, and while she very early on demonstrated a knack for the written word, she didn't fully appreciate the freedom writing could allow until she began to write in English as a young adult.
For Sze-Lorrain, who recently released a book of poetry called My Funeral Gondola, creative inspiration only came with distance.
"When I was a kid, anything that had to do with Chinese culture - the guzheng, my schooling - had to be done exactly right," she told China Daily. "Later, when I began writing in English, I found myself exploring Asian themes, but from a distance that felt incredibly freeing."
As a student at Columbia University, she dabbled in theater, writing and East Asian studies, and came to realize that there was more to be understood in the space between words and cultures, she said. Studying her own heritage from an intellectual perspective allowed for an ambivalence she had never indulged, and poetry provided an outlet for evolving views.
"The guzheng is a tradition, and you are always the carrier; you cannot disobey the instrument," she said. "In theater, I realized that another form of communication was through the physical body. And in poetry, I saw that I could approach the language on my own terms, with my own imagination as a tool."
When she struggled with writing, she found solace in source material and the writing of other poets; from there, she discovered the pleasure of translating Chinese works. She has since translated books by the poets Yu Xiang, Bai Hua and Yi Liu, among others.
Translation has also provided room for creative expression, and Sze-Lorrain does not undertake a translation project unless there's the possibility for exploration, she said. Although it's almost impossible to fully translate a poem with cadence and meaning intact, she finds the challenge exciting.
"Silence is the common language, even when the words are not the same," she said. "If you commit to that path, your whole perspective of language and life is different. It's no longer a linguistic puzzle; it's something spiritual. You begin with an act of failure, in humbling yourself to the fact that you will never fully be able to translate the words - but as you travel backwards from that realization, images unravel themselves faster than you can chase them. I find it to be a more poetic way of approaching poetry, translation and the cultural differences we all encounter."
Her Chinese heritage is evident throughout her work. In one poem, she writes: "Wandering in cloisters that breathe with trap/ doors, I am moving in a subjective time. Tea egg vendors fan their/ stoves, they count their coins in long gowns of smoke."
Frank Stewart, editor-in-chief of MANOA: A Pacific Journal of International Writing and a professor at the University of Hawaii, believes that Sze-Lorrain's grasp of languages is essential to her work as a poet.
"The mixture of language backgrounds in her work is haunting and melodic, and is part of something new that's going on in poetry," he told China Daily. "She exhibits a restraint in her language and a respectfulness of Chinese literature and history, and great poetic intelligence. Also in that mix is her music training, which you see in her precise striking of notes, and in the deliberate choice of her words."
Sze-Lorrain still performs as a guzheng soloist, exploring both classical and contemporary music. Her inspirations include cultural experience and what she calls "an inner listening".
She describes playing a traditional Zhejiang composition on the "zheng", punctuated with Bach's counterpoint. The instrument has always been a window into her heritage, a means to "solve a riddle with a harp", to quote a Bible verse. Her understanding of Chinese culture is linked to the history of the instrument itself, she said.
While she has visited China frequently, her experience of the culture is rooted in her understanding of its music and its literature. But that distance is what defines her, she said.
"I am surrounded by different cultural forces, and I occasionally experience a conflicted state," she said. "It's always tempting to push away that Asian heritage, and say that it's just your parents and not you. But I've realized that I write about Chinese traditions and people because I think I have to get over it in writing. Otherwise I wouldn't feel honest as a writer."
Sze-Lorrain is currently working on a book of short stories, and music featuring French music on the guzheng, she said. She lives in Paris, and when she feels the weight of her busy life, she sets aside time for Chinese calligraphy to moderate her breathing.
A Poet’s Gondola: Review by Zara Raab
For both the contemporary poet and Nobel Laureate Tomas Transtromer and the classical composer Franz Liszt, “Funeral Gondola” is a title alluding to Richard Wagner, whose body was ferried along the Venetian lagoon in 1885. Sze-Lorrain’s “Funeral Gondola,” she assures us, “has nothing to do // with Liszt /with Wagner / with Transtromer”, although the ghosts of these giants are bound to shadow the melodic lamentations of this poet, who is at home in several continents and cultures. Sze-Lorrain’s “Maestro” is not Wagner, but her ancient ancestor and countryman, the Chinese poet Li Po; his gondola takes the shape of a child’s paper boat she has made as a child in remembrance of him, a boat, that floats “away to the night sky where the painful moon hangs.” Sze-Lorrain’s gondola travels seas far from Venice, perhaps the Malacca Strait near the city-state of Singapore at the top of the Malay Peninsula, the country made up of dozens of islands where Sze-Lorrain was born. Her gondola, she tells us, “positions itself”
midway in a strait—so that shadows
in a trance
travel over it
Ghosts are bound to wander in and out of any book about funeral rites and death by a poet of Chinese ancestry. In Chinese culture, ghosts are supposed to take many forms depending on the manner of death; through them, some believe, a person may contact a dead ancestor. For Sze-Lorrain, any funeral ceremony must keep “the ghosts in mind”; they, who “sit like cats through the wake,” must be served cakes. Ghosts are good, too, for chasing away fears and can be invoked in thunderstorms to chase imaginary dogs on the rooftop, as they do in the poem “Lullaby.”
Ghosts are part of a rural folklore quite foreign to modern and post-modern urban consciousness. One interpretation of the poems is as the struggle of an evolved urban consciousness to deal with the superstition and folkloric values of remote agrarian ancestors. Sze-Lorrain certainly views her ghosts as altogether “odd spirits,” the title of the second section, which opens with a lovely evocation of a remote harbor at night under a deep, starry sky, a poem called “Orion” one of the brightest of evening constellations. Stars are connected to astrology and soothsaying, and so, addressing Orion, the poet, who as a small child dreamed of becoming an astronaut, writes,
Before death the seer showed me how
you eluded mystery
Shadows may be ghostly, too, and spiritual. China’s culture of ghosts spread, apparently, far beyond the mainland to the Southeast Asia. In the poem “Javanese Wayang,” puppets tell their story from behind a transparent screen, which casts them as shadows. The poet advises: “Watch the shadows, not/ the puppets.” In “Monuments Against Sundown,” she says, “A man doesn’t walk with his ghosts. He walks with his shadow, the man who says no,” the dark self. Words, too, are shadowed by their origins and early meanings, the word “shadow,” itself originally meaning a darkness that provided shelter from light and heat.
In “Still in the Night Fields of Hokkaido” the poet goes with her camera at night to a field in the northern-most island of Japan, Hokkaido. Here a dreamy landscape, exquisitely described, becomes “an unwinged sea of lamps”—suggesting fireflies, although there is “inattentive rain,” so perhaps the lamps are the starlight filtering through the droplets of rain. Sze-Lorrain’s sensitivity to the natural, concrete world meets a more ancient, mythic understanding, for suddenly she hears the––crickets, triumphant, playful, and joyous in their song. In this night terrain, she tells us, “Crickets question// twice”––
They register an air
between real and improvised time.
finish my line. Nature suddenly
feels so foreign
Crickets are not only part of nature, they participate in an ancient symbolism. (Who can forget the role of the cricket in Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor?) One studies them as a naturalist, but this is not their whole story. Sze-Lorrain’s empirically minded, Western, questioning and questing self––represented here by her camera––breaks. She begins another line about the crickets, but she is not able to finish it.
“After the Moon,” a short lyrical meditation on the world’s mirrors of oblivion and guests in their disguises, expresses Sze-Lorrain’s solitude, an unalterable condition of life that she accepts, moving forward without false constraints but with the curiosity of a scientist.
So many shadows,
so few ghosts––I am lonely
in this imperfect end.
“Sixteen Lines, Autumn 2010,” the prequel to the 35 poems of this book-length meditation on the ambiguities of life and death, present and past, begins simply, “In past autumns, I saw the world differently” and ends:
Look: a long sundown.
No more black and white.
The word “white” itself once referred to fresh snow or salt, anything full of brightness or light, and the Chinese often consider Caucasians (“whites”) as “ghosts.” Ghosts are neither quite dead nor quite alive, shadows, too, are ambiguous, neither white nor black. The past keeps reappearing in and shadowing the present, and the living sometimes seem to live on only in a dead past. In the dense and intriguing “Visitor,” she recounts how her Shanghai grandmother, when asked about her early life in Communist China, answers with a single word: “Hungry.”
Though born in Singapore to Chinese parents, Sze-Lorrain is very much a Parisian, educated and living in Paris and writing in a tradition that goes back to the French surrealists of the 19th century. The poet’s playful gesture of wearing a fake mole is very much in the urbane modernist tradition of the French surrealist Mallarme and Apollinaire. “Notes from My Funeral” is full of gallows humor. The poet, imagining her own death, lies “like Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man” in a round coffin, “perfect fengshui”, “the sound of wild gods drumming” in her heart.
Eyes unshut. I wait
for the flowering of my last
wish, The honor of your presence
is requested at your own funeral
Underlying many poems, however, is a sorrow and a preoccupation with the ghosts of the past, the suggestion of the death of a child, perhaps, or other recent losses. But when brought into the light (in “My Melancholy,” for example), the poet’s sorrows disappear, at least for a moment–– or perhaps more accurately, they are filed away in a private domain (as “official secrets”). Sze-Lorrain evokes and names her sorrows without being engulfed by them; instead, she attends, as a scientist or keen observer might, to the layers and perspectives that surround the merely personal. The poem’s windows are thrown open, the poet is porous. “My Nudity,” she writes, echoing T.S. Eliot,
delivers what is important
about my body, between action
and repose, a room
“Before this mirror,” she continues, “I am my painter,/ realizing that bareness/ opens/ and never shuts.” By the end of this collection, in “Return to Self,” the poet resumes mundane activities. A friend calls. She has news from her sister. She is avowedly learning to live with her desires and grief.
Other poems here scramble the normal syntactical sequence of words or disrupt linear temporality. Raw, spontaneous language, the site of meaning and intentionality, can create its own event, rather than referring to events outside itself. In “When the Title Took Its Life,” the lines of the poem “wish to know how they left/ this pen// and why I imprison them”. “Erase me” they insist. These effects, forming a deconstructionist puzzle, may derive from Sze-Lorrain’s philosophy of “Linguistic conscience,” which she describes in an interview (in The Bitter Oleander, vol. 17, no. 2):
Words can’t just be concepts if they truly nourish a poetry that comes alive. They practically need to be sensibilities. This is why I try to nurture words whenever they come to me, even if they might seem “raw,” instead of looking for them and crafting them around specific images or contexts.
Elsewhere, though, she mocks lofty intellectual concerns. In “Digesting an Academic Symposium, Some Months Back,” she asks, “Is Foucault in season?” and captures the pretention of academic conferences where “the Nuremberg sausages” are a “cultural must-eat.”
With an eye for the absurd, Sze-Lorrain imagines a diva in the poem of that title pouring “cough syrup into her Chanel handbag,” and eating “her scores when she can’t recall/ her past triumphs […]” “Scarlet” is another nonlinear prose poems resisting coherence, yet breaking out in startling lyricism: “I’m not sure why orchids remind me of her,” the poet writes. “The way she served us tea, thin without sugar.”
“Now, Meditate” illustrates how Sze-Lorrain combines experimental elements with more formal characteristics. I’ll quote the poem in full:
Yes, the nostrils of silence.
A sea of visitors chained together.
More or less tempting
I no longer know my kind.
Light added to light, mountains feel near.
What is darkly denied us?
Let it go,
this chestful of sky.
My stomach turns from stone
Pain washes one or two moons down my back.
Bones are now moving alike (10)
As “stoma” is a mouth, and the stomach in some cultures is the seat of pride and anger, a place of temper and disposition, for the poet to say her stomach turns from stone to birds suggests rebirth through lyric song. At least this is one interpretation. “Pain,” of course, is related to penalty and punishment, to grief, expiation, and ransom, and in its earliest form was connected to “pining,” calling up for me an image of pine sap dripping down the poet’s back. In an open form, Se-Lorrain juxtaposes unlike items—the “nostrils of silence” and “chestful of sky,” but her narrative voice is stable, the narrative itself, coherent. Experimental as the poems are in this book––especially in contrast to her earlier book Water the Moon––Sze-Lorrain does not eschew closure. Indeed, with one or two exceptions, all the line breaks end with closure––occurring at full stops with a period, comma or question mark.
“Francois Dead” recounts, again in a clear narrative, the emptying of a house or an apartment after the death of a friend or someone close.
Without improvisation, we empty the drawers.
Papers slip. He pulls the shades, lifts
the mattress, dismantles
the Victorian bed. I wash the floor
with a rag on all fours.
After arranging those famous first-
editions, we stop and fold
silence into a cigarette.
He lights the lamp, we return to dust. 
Here is precise description of silence folded into a cigarette, a passage alluding to the occasion’s somberness without explicitly naming it. Many poems (“Javanese Wayang,” “Diva,” “Francois Dead”) in My Funeral Gondola, like those of Water the Moon, construct coherent narratives with a stable voice and closure, striving for clarity and precision.
Sze-Lorrain’s cultural references, not surprisingly for a poet of her heritage, are broad and deep, from Li Po to Ravel, Dickinson to Vivaldi and Tchaikovsky, the constellation Orion to the northern most island of Japan to the music of Java. In the long poem, “Not Thinking about the Past” one begins to sense how physical the act of writing is for Sze-Lorrain, who insists on putting the word on paper, however raw the word may be. This is perhaps one link she can find and hold to a Chinese heritage that requires worship of ancestors as a form of rootedness in the world—through the physical body, the material world. Yet as a post-modern urbanite, Sze-Lorrain has evolved a consciousness that leaves behind or at least sets aside—perhaps in the ‘official secrets” file––the ghosts and superstitions of rural folklore. The intermingling of levels of consciousness in her poems makes fascinating reading. During the most powerful of aesthetic experiences––say, for example listening to Tchaikovsky––suddenly, the poet tells us, “rain pours.” However fractured our experiences of past and present, the corporality of the world and her own body sustains her:
[…] my body
where darkness is a long
The body sustains the links among the disparate times and spaces of the individual’s experience, from the nine-year old on the stage at Singapore’s Victoria Concert Hall to the mature musician in Carnegie Hall or the contemplative poet at her writing desk, from the fencing arena in Edmonton, Canada (where the poet once competed) to the halls of Columbia University or the Sorbonne. This fund of experience yields some gorgeous lyrics.
Fiona Sze-Lorrain Interview
by Zara Raab
Fiona Sze-Lorrain made her debut at nine as a zheng harpist in Singapore’s Victoria Concert Hall. She has since become an interdisciplinary artist working in poetry, music and theater, as well as a publisher, critic and curator of the avant-garde. My Funeral Gondola (Manoa Books/El Leon Literary Arts, 2013) is Sze-Lorrain’s second book of poetry. Presque invisible — the French translation of Mark Strand’s Almost Invisible — appeared in France last year. Her translations of contemporary Chinese poets —Bai Hua, Yu Xiang, Lan Lan and Zhang Zao — are or will be published by Zephyr Press. She lives in Paris, France.
Zara Raab: Thank you for agreeing to speak with me about your artistic life and the publication of your new book, My Funeral Gondola. You were born in Singapore, you’ve lived in New York, and now France. Our readers would be interested to know how you came to settle in France, and also why chose to write your poems in English.
Fiona Sze-Lorrain: I was born in Singapore and grew up in a hybrid of cultures. I spent most of my young adulthood in Europe and the States. For a brief stint, I stayed in Edmonton, Canada before moving to New York to pursue my studies at Columbia University and NYU. I stayed on in Manhattan and worked for a while, mostly as a dramaturge in theaters. I also gave harp concerts. I am a Francophone, and my husband is French. So I live in Paris.
I didn’t choose to write poems in English — it wasn’t something I deliberated before committing. I don’t know how else I can best express myself in terms of verses. Truth is, neither English nor any other language is a comfort zone in its entirety for me.
Z Raab: You are a musician as well as poet, critic, essayist, and translator. My Funeral Gondola is full of musical references, including a poem with a title from the French composer Ravel that recalls your learning to play an instrument as a young child. How does your music nurture your writing?
F SZE-LORRAIN: This is a tough question. I struggle with it. I’m sure there must be some informative overlap between music and writing when one practices either or both on a daily basis. They claim my attention in different ways, and I like to keep them that way. Sometimes, music does not necessarily have its “contents” when you work on it in relation to the moment — onstage, for example — for the experience needs to be honored first. It also depends on the material. I don’t mean to suggest that writing isn’t an experience; there’s something naked about yourself that you can hide more easily — if you want to — when it comes to writing. Or so it seems to me.
Z Raab: Do you mean the writer can hide behind his words more easily than he can disguise himself in a new wardrobe? Or more easily than a musician might mask herself with her music?
F SZE-LORRAIN: Yes… with Internet, it’s even trickier: the image — or the “illusion” — seems to have precedence over the real. But it’s hard to generalize . . . . it depends.
Z Raab: Are some of the poems as much musical compositions as they are verse constructs in language?
F SZE-LORRAIN: Hope so — though I understand that poems and musical compositions aren’t always lending authority to each other in ways we can control or define. They are more organic than we imagine. Mushrooms in omelets or omelets with mushrooms?
Z Raab: Some of your poems strike me as more invented than others — these poems use absurd and disparate imagery, rather surrealist — like the lines, “thoughts on the horizon that imitate / rainy sentences” (from “Sonata Amoroso”). There’s a persona there, but — forgive the allusion — it’s shadowy, dispelled. Other poems in this book—and many of the poems in your earlier book Water the Moon–– seem very close to the speaking poet in a more embodied way; poems like “Now, Meditate,” “Come Back,” or “Francois Dead” seem to have you more physically present at their center. Is this your experience? Can you avoid moving into the center of your own poems, or do you seek to remove yourself from them, or enter them only from a distance?
F SZE-LORRAIN: I find distance refreshing, and do strive for distance as an older but more resistant way of seeing. They regenerate lyric energy and re-enact conversations that speak to, instead of for, persona(e) and what was gone. I don’t know if one can avoid moving into the center of the poems. Neither do I know if one can remove oneself from them. It seems to empower the poet more than the poems, doesn’t it? My own experience has more to do with me feeling diminished while poems gradually come into their existence on a page. At the beginning it felt foreign — like a hole, an emptiness inside, pregnant with a breath — but time helps: it relieves me of the anxiety, and re-arranges sensorial experience such as this.
Z Raab: The process of writing the poem relieves the anxiety? Is the poem at times inspired by a peering into an abyss or by sensations of emptiness or the grief and mourning that follow loss?
F SZE-LORRAIN: To some extent, writing the poem does relieve the anxiety of trying to get it “right” in the head. Still, once the poem exists in a rough form on paper, other anxieties or concerns call for vigilance. Sometimes it is just a ghost poem.
Z Raab: You’re a polyglot, speaking, what, several languages or dialects?
F SZE-LORRAIN: I am fluent in a few languages — largely for reasons of survival and the contexts of my upbringing — though I don’t feel comfortable “qualifying” myself as “polyglot.” I don’t enjoy sharing the company of those who take pride in presenting themselves with an identity of being bilingual, trilingual, and so forth. A wise friend warned me that those who think they know several languages could possibly end up having several egos. The implicit point has something to do with language as an accomplice allowing us to perform a role, a self — or even a mask — instead of opening up possibilities that better our sense of being. At the risk of simplifying, perhaps it’s the voice that counts more than the language.
Z Raab: Do you write primarily in English or do you also publish in French and Chinese? How much translating to you do, and from what language to what language? Do you dream in French, Chinese, English?
F SZE-LORRAIN: Yes, English. I’ve published some critical prose and translations in French. I translate from French to English (and vice versa), or from Chinese to English (but not vice versa).
My dreams — or the ones I remember — seem silent. They move in a rich palette of colors. Probably more visual than oral.
Z Raab: Acknowledging that in grieving, one mourns, as Gerard Manley Hopkins tells us, for oneself, the funeral gondola of your book is your own hearse — an idea you express with wonderful wit reminiscent of the gravediggers in Hamlet. Would you say, though, that throughout the poems, the past keeps reappearing and inhabiting the present — that this is a central theme of the book?
F SZE-LORRAIN: Is it “past” or “memories”?
While working on My Funeral Gondola, I recalled having realized how much more restorative the process could be when narrative challenges focused on details of memory rather than the categorical variable we’d label as the “past.” Ultimately, there must be some sort of a continuity or outward momentum. Guess this is where humor could come in.
Z Raab: In an earlier interview, you say that you don’t like to let words move around in your head, you prefer to put them down on paper. Does this mean that you do not revise your writing?
F SZE-LORRAIN: No. I revise obsessively — not in my mind, on paper. From time to time I wish I could exercise magic. Poems come slow to me; I’ve to work and fail and fail and work in order to arrive at linguistic alertness. This is why I want to put words down on paper instead of letting them float around as thoughts. I relish Sir Francis Bacon’s idea that wonder is the seed of knowledge, but tend to stick to the physical act of writing. The latter helps me to listen better.
Z Raab: This sounds more like a mental health prescription than an ethical or aesthetic choice — the desire to avoid being obsessive in your thinking. Can you elaborate a little on this idea?
F SZE-LORRAIN: Perhaps it’s more practical. Or convenient. All in all, it’s spontaneous. I travel often for concerts. I don’t typewrite straightaway on a computer, hence the need to record thoughts down.
Z Raab: As a final question: can you say something about what are you working on now?
F SZE-LORRAIN: I’m growing orchids. Lots of them. I’m also reading Proust.
Z Raab: It’s such a pleasure for me to be able to speak with you even if it is electronically, Fiona Sze-Lorrain. Many thanks!
F SZE-LORRAIN: Thank you, too.
The Music of Recovered Life
My Funeral Gondola, by Fiona Sze-Lorrain (Honolulu, Berkeley:
Manoa Books, El Leon Literary Arts, 2013), 72 pages, paper.
ISBN: 978-0983391982. $18.
Sze-Lorrain, also aguzheng (a Chinese zither) player, makes it clear in the title poem that her funeral gondola "has nothing to do // with Liszt / with Wagner / with Tranströmer," all of whom take part in "La lugubre gondola," Liszt's work in memory Wagner and an inspiration for the poet Transtr?mer. This anti-work is one among several as Sze-Lorrain sets about composing a book that, like Ravel's "Boléro," passes references from poem to poem of composers (e.g., Bartók, Debussy, Fauré, Vivaldi), poets (e.g., Rimbaud, Dickinson), and Chinese traditions like the moon and ghost festivals and the lighting of lanterns. Whatever brought her to write about her death, with poems like "Notes from My Funeral" and "My Death," is not clearly evident, though we sense how close it has come—"This autumn, death gets even smaller"—as the speaker of the poem (from "Sixteen Lines, Autumn 2010," which is a prequel to the book) moves from the precision of graceful white swans and crows with their "black cries" to the ambiguity of a "long sundown" and a world no longer "black and white." A sense of displacement runs through these poems, and not just Sze-Lorrain's look at her own death ("Tibetan / chants end a virtual / sky burial"). In "Not Thinking About the Past," which also serves as the subtitle of the final section, the four parts of the poem are of the different locations connected with the poet: NYC ("I know—this town // holds no sentiment") to Edmonton ("I live slowly here") to Singapore ("but voices stay tender in my head") to Paris ("And / you carry me, without nostalgia").
A prose poem titled "Refusing Lyricism," opens: "This sadness in me isn't mine. An earthern (sic) jar, Emily Dickinson, a bed." No sweet lyric, the poem goes on to say that it's the wait, that it's time itself, that is the sadness. What is "this wait?" The poem's ending hints at it: "My American friends write poems on war—political and spiritual. Is their imprisonment a subject, a word, or an example. I've lived through both, childless and don't need lies." This refusal to coddle is strong, and Sze-Lorrain's poems can feel like a cold, hard rain, but one scented by orchids. The language has essence ("Pain washes one or two moons down my back"—from "Now, Meditate").
Prose poems and list poems of prose sentences dominate the volume, with the latter used in the last poem, "Return to Self," which enumerates (in no particular order, the poet tells us in the epigraph) release and acceptance: "The whiteness of this page can't appease my hurt," and "Some of my friends write from a prison in their minds. I am happy and complete sentences. They ask me why."
Sze-Lorrain's My Funeral Gondola is like Liszt's plaintive melody: "This is a low-key departure. Observe the rites, but don't mourn. By tints and degrees, consider this death a ghost poem."
—Ellen Jane Powers
My Funeral Gondola
by Fiona Sze-Lorrain
Published: Manoa Books/El León
Related Link: http://www.fionasze.com
Fiona Sze-Lorrain’s debut collection of poetry, Water the Moon, was published in 2010. In addition to her books of translation of Chinese poets from Zephyr Press, she has translated several contemporary French and American authors, and co-edited the Mãnoa anthologies, Sky Lanterns (2012) and On Freedom (2013), both from the University of Hawai’i Press. An editor at Cerise Press and Vif éditions, she is also a zheng harpist and orchid healer. She lives in France.