Review: Fiona Sze-Lorrain’s Water the Moon


Jim Feast

Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 124 in September, 2010.

Water the Moon
By Fiona Sze-Lorrain
(Grosse Pointe Farms,MI: Marick Press, 2009)
Review by Jim Feast

It’s all about voyages. I say that because also in this issue of Evergreen Review, I evaluate another book about a trip, this one by Richard Milazzo. He talks of going from New York to Romania. Water the Moon by Fiona Sze-Lorrain describes a journey to a different part of Europe, starting from a different place. Milazzo speaks as a visitor, while Sze-Lorrain’s story is that of relocation. Born in Singapore, and having lived in the Orient, she moved to and settled in France. In fact, she’s something of a globetrotter, having lived in New York City and other places, but her shift from the Far East to Paris is the book’s ultimate focus.

Now to reverse the meaning of a phrase, since the one I’m thinking of is usually applied to a Westerner who lives in and picks up the customs of an exotic Oriental country, the Chinese Sze-Lorrain has “gone native” in Paris: marrying a Frenchman, becoming an expert on European painting and literature, even a gourmet, hyper-alert to the tastes of such dishes as grilled langoustines and the veal concoction called “L’Assiette des trios amis.”

Now, I can think of two possible misreadings of what I have said so far. For one, it might be thought I’m presenting a book that looks sharply at the difficulties of adjustment to (and connected to that difficulty, the pleasures and satisfactions that come from) entering into a milieu that is radically distinct from the one to which you are accustomed.

Don’t get me wrong. She does poignantly comment on the issue of adaptation, as in these stanzas:

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.

Still and all, the book largely concentrates on a different and, I think, more complex topic, which can be rendered in this question: Can she find in her new home a level of historical continuity with that of her birthplace?

This brings us to the second possible mistake. When I say she is trying to align her Far Eastern (specifically, Chinese) experiences with those of her current life in Europe, the reader shouldn’t take this to denote, for instance, that she is working to link classical Chinese culture, that of, say, Confucius and Tang poetry, with ideas of the West. Not at all. The reference is more contemporary, to such events in the East as the rise of Mao, the Cultural Revolution, and some of the totalitarian aspects of Chinese rule.

She writes, for example, of Mao’s influence on the Red Guards. “Your thoughts marched in the streets // little red books going to war,” and of the downfall of his widow, who was associated with the Gang of Four, mentioning, “Your wife said she was your dog, // whoever you asked her to bite, she bit hard.”

It is the same disrupted socio-political terrain she seeks in the French metropole and finds in the upheaval in Paris, May ’68. While the Chinese Cultural Revolution was not progressive in the way the French events were, both served to temporarily upend the structures of everyday life with the closing of schools, the postering and graffiting of all city walls, and the collapse of normalcy. As she writes, “A revolution begins in 1968 … Society lost its voice, individuals found theirs … Manifestoes flew and knocked out walking corpses.”

It might be said, somewhat cynically, that both these revolts ended up, eventually, at the same point. In China, there was an instatement of capitalism, and in France that economic system’s reinvigoration, but you could also say that each time of excitement and chaos left a hope that the leaders of the next uprising can learn from the past or, as she writes, “Reconstruct, you claim, realistically -- // from dust to dust, without new fears // but not from zero, never from zero.”

This allusion to May ’68 represents neither the full extent nor the deepest point at which the continuity for which she searches can be traced. That is arrived at later, in part in the magnificent and nearly final poem in the book “Ruach of Celan.”

Jewish poet Paul Celan, whose parents died in the holocaust while he was imprisoned in a Romanian labor camp, lived in Paris after the war, where he committed suicide by plunging into the Seine. She remembers him this way:

At dusk I stroll along River Seine …
At dusk the dead soar on iron wings

She continues, commenting on the powerful anguish his verse expressed. “When the river and you joined spirits underground, // you splintered its ruach [spiritual breath] with your anguish.”

The continuity is strong: both poets, both exiles in Paris, both melancholy, both looking back at countries they left after watching or experiencing massive violence, a violence embedded in class or racial oppression. In these ways, they are both sundered and joined, and through him she reaches a sympathetic wavelength that links the two cultures she has experienced (Chinese and French), so that in her consciousness and her soul she can tentatively establish a spiritual co-prosperity sphere.