Tag Archives: My Funeral Gondola

Zara Raab, review of Fiona Sze-Lorrain’s My Funeral Gondola

My Funeral GondolaMy Funeral Gondola
By Fiona Sze-Lorrain
Mãnoa Books, El Leon Literary Arts

Honolulu, Berkeley, 2013
ISBN: 978-0-98339198-2
Paper, 57 pages. $18.00

 

 

 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.

Crickets––I can’t
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
but curious
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
reception. RSVP.

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
and unimportant
about my body, between action
and repose, a room
temperature. [9]

“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
melancholia.
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
to birds.
Pain washes one or two moons down my back.
I listen.
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. [23]

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
ebony lash

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.

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Evoking the rainy darkness of the remote northern California coast, Zara Raab’s poems are collected in The Book of Gretel and Swimming the Eel. In September a third book, Fracas and Asylum continues her journey through inner and outer landscapes of storm, seclusion and reverie. A fourth book, finalist for the Dana Award and based on the tale of Rumpelstiltskin, will appear in October. Raab’s poems, reviews, and essays appear in Evansville Review, River Styx, Crab Orchard Review, The Dark Horse, and Poet Lore. A contributing editor for Redwood Coast Review and Poetry Flash, she lives near the San Francisco Bay.

Fiona Sze-Lorrain Interview by Zara Raab

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.