Tag Archives: Zara Raab

Elaine M. Starkman

Hearing Beyond Sound Elaine Starkman coverHearing Beyond Sound: New and Collected Poems
by Elaine M. Starkman

San Ramon, CA: DVS Publishing, 2013
Paper, 72 pages
ISBN: 978-0-9883006-2-0
Reviewed by Zara Raab 



Light Travel, Sound Travel 

Fog is universal, but nowhere does it have quite the presence that it has in the San Francisco Bay area, where Elaine Starkman has lived most of her adult life. Starkman’s new book opens with the characteristically unpretentious language of “Alive, Winter, 2008,” in which imagery of pear juice, goblets, and fog establishes a tone and mood that pervades many of her poems: 

My view
illumined by

phantom orchards.

“Sandy’s Gone, January 2011” captures in title alone her simple, understated language, evoking the temperament of a diarist who keeps a journal, or a faithful correspondent, each letter dated, sent from ports in her travels through life. Reflections on death and solitude intermingle in “Sooner or Later, 2000”: All this will end//[. . .] Loving and not loving knowing/sooner than later we’ll part//Then what we think/ will not matter//Then we’ll wonder/what silences we’ll take//with us/ to our graves.” This poem reads like a letter to a spouse of many years. Many of Starkman’s poems have much of the simplicity and intimacy of personal correspondence. This isn’t to say Starkman’s descriptions aren’t lovely. In “June, 1999,” the line breaks have the purposeful presence of suggesting a necklace of the pearls featured as an image in the poem: 

chips of pearl
fading toward

 “Stillness, February, 2006,” set in Green Gulch at Muir Beach, epitomizes this poet’s reflective cast of mind:

I didn’t think
this calmness
could happen,

this sweet
immeasurable stillness

By following the contours and normative turns of her syntax, and breaking predictably, Starkman’s lines mirror her zen approach to life, one of whose tenets might be paraphrased as “the way is easy for those who do not pick and choose.” Starkman rarely offers rhythmic surprise, or breaks the poetic line to amplify or qualify meaning – to strive for more than is natural. Although Starkman has chosen to keep her poems free from the strictures of meter and rhyme, she has not then taken on the difficulties inherent in rhythmic surprise, enjambment or complex meaning. Starkman is never overly ambitious in her use of the freedom of free verse. This has a calming effect, slowing down the progress of the poem and perhaps facilitating connection with the reader. It is rather like some of William Carlos Williams’ early poems, before he mastered his brilliant rhythmic patterns in what James Longenbach has called the “annotating line.”

One of my favorite poems, in the section of “History Lessons” drawn from Jewish and her own history, is “Peaches, Netanya, Near the Sea,” an homage to Avram, an “old immigrant/from Eastern Europe” who sells peaches from a cart with his helper, young Yosef, “the singing Yemenite;/ his dark sandaled feet” dangling “over the cart pulled by a donkey,” while their dog Cush runs alongside. The poet recalls Yosef teaching her how to say the Hebrew word for peach, “Ahfarsek,” and giving her a taste. She concludes:

Oh, fruit of the land
Oh, milk and honey.
Where are you now,
Singing Yosef,
Silent Avram,
Lost Cush

“Every Single Day, a Ray of Light” evokes the Jewish Kabbalah, and “Kaddish for the Columbia” discusses “the sketch/ by a boy in Auschwitz” carried into outer space by the space shuttle Columbia, without echoing any of the rich, wrought cadences of the Hebrew bible. Ancient Jewish traditions pervade these poems, while the sparse style remains firmly planted in the twenty-first century. “In the Kibbutz Laundry, 1969,” one of a series of poems set in Israel, is dedicated to Rivka Cooper, whose arm is tattooed with a concentration camp number:

 In the kibbutz laundry
 Her hands move in an act of love.

“[E]ngraved on her arm/ Lives a page of history/ That all the soap/ And all the rubbing/Can never wash away.”

Family bonds are a rich source of reflection. In “Apricots for Isaac,” the poet savors an afternoon of walking with her grandson in an abandoned orchard; he climbs an apricot tree whose fruit is beginning to ripen. In “Patterns,” she reflects on the links between the generations, the patterns tying her to her mother, and from her mother through her, to her children:

How is it that I’ve become my mother
Stand at the sink   wash her hair

The way she once washed mine
How is it that I carry everything

Unnamed between us
Onto my own children

And call it love

“Re-reading Poems of Anne Sexton, 1984” makes evident Sexton’s influence: “The fearless courage of your writing/ nourished my own.” Preoccupation with childhood motivates poems like “Three A.M., November 2011,” recording a dream of a “blue eyed/dark haired brother and sister//I knew long ago,” or the poem “Chicago: Garfield Park Conservatory, September, 2004,” conjuring a neighborhood where the poet “trudged with [her] father through winter snow, spring rains, and summer swelter more than /half a century ago.”

Although Starkman begins her poems with a personal perspective, she is by no means a Confessional poet, and she writes of male literary influences, capturing in brief stanzas the essences of Hemingway, Einstein, and Gandhi, each of whom “lets me know that my life/ is in my own hands” (“Traveling Among Men, June, 2012”).

Never inflated, didactic, or politically correct, Starkman isn’t generally interested in news headlines but in the slow news of family life, as in the charming “In Praise of Old Man’s Pee,” dedicated to her father, whom she visits in the hospital near the end of his life. Starkman celebrates the “men we don’t hear or/read about who give/us their manly gifts//who love us gently/with compassion.” An overarching theme of Hearing Beyond Sound is the need for an inner voice.

No, I don’t want
To know who’s
Making money
Losing it
Who’s having affairs
Who’s winning
[. . .]
More news  more websites
More blogs  more spam
More more more—

There’s lively detail in Starkman’s portrait of the well-dressed man in a wheelchair selling soap on the street corner in “Lost Words, 2009,” and humor in the poet’s recognition that, caught up in the petty trials of her own life, she does not really see him. Starkman is most exuberant in her friendships with women. “Cabana Carioca, New York City,” dedicated to the poet Florence Miller, describes a New York City outing:

We abandon ourselves
To every pan-handler
[. . .]
We swoon at the stocky waiters
In Cabana Carioca on 45th Street.
[. . .]
we samba up the line in step
to the last of the Portuguese buffets
where we pay the counter price
for paella and flan at this lunch of love.

At times, Hearing Beyond Words reads like a travel letter from Israel, Europe, and Asia, and occasionally the line between poetry and good prose is sustained only by the thin thread of the line break. Yet without straining for heightened literary effect, the poet connects with both the people in her stories and her readers beyond the page. Even in sleep, she is traveling, with the notion of some ultimate journey beyond life hovering like a shadow. In “Traveling Toward Dawn, September, 2005,” she writes, “Soon I’ll lie down to sleep/wrap myself in night/ fold its coverlet above me.” Travel is evoked even by this tender collection’s elusive title, referring to the “celestial sound” of the highway, the “angelic humming//from the car tires/ as we pass sandy dunes,” on their way somewhere. As reader, I welcome these missives from other lands. I travel with her.


Zara Raab’s latest book is Fracas & Asylum. Earlier books are Swimming the Eel and The Book of Gretel, narrative poems of the remote Lost Coast of California in 19th  and early 20th Century. Her poems appear in River Styx, West Branch, Arts & Letters, Crab Orchard Review, and The Dark Horse. She is a contributing editor to Poetry Flash and The Redwood Coast Review. Rumpelstiltskin, or What’s in a Name? was a finalist for the Dana Award. She lives near the San Francisco Bay.

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
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.

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.

Zara Raab, review of Christina Pugh’s Grains of the Voice

Grains of the Voice by Christina PughGrains of the Voice
Poems by Christina Pugh
Triquarterly Books
Northwestern University Press, Evanston, IL, 2013
ISBN: 978-0-8101-5228, 75 pages, paper, $16.95 



Musical Harvest: Review by Zara Raab 

Christine Pugh’s poems remind us that, as Roland Barthes writes, “significance in literature is inexhaustible.” For though these “linguist silhouettes,” as Pugh calls them, are slender––rarely over a dozen lines––her meanings proliferate with each reading. Pugh is one of the poets in the present era who, coming of age amid the social protests and revolution of the 1960s, has turned from social and political protest, commentary, and satire––the staple of divisive, hugely entertaining late night comedy––toward interior, embodied discourse, leavened with rich seams of allusion to 60’s and 70’s rock and roll, washed clean of nostalgia, along with linguistic, semiotic, existentialist deposits, as well. Even Corot’s “grave boatmen,” May Ray’s surrealist art and metaphysical art `a la the Italian print maker Giorgio Morandi make an appearance in this book as illuminated with literary and cultural references as a medieval manuscript. Pugh’s lyrics seem to come from tongue or glottis, nose or teeth, not from the whisperings of her brain, breath or lung. (Barthes––whose ghost lives in the seams of this collection––calls the lung “a stupid organ [… that] swells but gets no erection.”)

Roland Barthes also supplies Pugh’s title. In his essay, “The Grain of the Voice,” Barthes asks, “How, then, does language manage when it has to interpret music?” Very badly, he says, at least in music criticism. He goes on to speculate somewhat incomprehensibly as far as I can see that if we “displace the fringe of contact between music and language,” we may find in vocal music a worthwhile encounter between language and music. Barthes calls this encounter—again, with mystery–– ”the grain of the voice when the latter is in a dual posture, a dual production—of language and of music.” For the first section of Pugh’s book, Barthes’ words provide the epigram, and early rock and roll tunes the many reference points.

Pugh’s “Persistent Tune” evokes the life style of generations of youths who, beginning with the Japanese Walk Man in the early 1980s, tuned in to popular music pretty much nonstop. Now it’s the iPod, and in her poem of that title, Pugh sees herself with “wires/ like a wingspan”—the ear buds of the iPod trailing to the hand or pocket with the ubiquitous device.  The poem “Persistent Tune” plays on the old radio hit  “Do You Know the Way to San Jose?” It’s a song––as you’ll recall if you rode in automobiles with the radio on in the early 1970s–– about losing one’s way in the heady 1970’s cultural shifts, going back to San Jose “to find some peace of mind.” It is a requiem for all the lost souls who went to LA hoping to become stars: “weeks turn into years; how quick they pass/ and all the stars that never were/ are parking cars and pumping gas,” the pop song goes. “But who could get / a job pumping gas these days?” Pugh’s poem responds: “Nobody, /not least the stars that never were.”

Pugh’s “Water Music” evokes the old strobe lights of disco dancing in “a quilt of refractive light upon many square inches” of the body of the girl who “nearly / danced as a river.”

                    This is why we say Her
          name is Rio, and why I’m learning love requires
          a trawl-net, an act of free will. 

The connection between Rio and the lesson on love is not all that clear to me, but Pugh does manage to capture the way we tend to remember the old songs once heard over and over again on the radio as we circled the freeways in our youth––a snatch here, a title there. She is not above satire of these memories, as when she reminds us (in “Heideggerian”) to “listen carefully/ to all that surrounds us: the ravening glow / of the Elvis lamp, florid at the hairline, / lips and cheek; or James Brown’s miniature / bare chest rippling in the window of the Salvation Army.” (An Elvis lamp is for $150 on eBay.)

However deeply related song is to poem, only one of them is really profitable in the age of record and disc. Survival and economic viability, never explicit, are nonetheless persistent tunes in Grains of the Voice, for as she implies at the outset, in poems like the ones you are about to read, “there / is no real profit to be had; there’s / little use; there is no exchange /value.” (“Profit Margin”) The poet is improvident, to use another of Pugh’s titles, taken from a line in the poem “Women” by Louise Bogan (“They Are Improvident Instead”), and her trade impractical; like the rest of her tribe, she shops at the Salvation Army (“Unsung”).  Music, in contrast,  “enthralls the marketplace” (“Singer”). By interpolating a line from Shakespeare’s “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” Pugh may be raising the question of relative value for poem and song: Shall she compare the poem to the popular song (that may rake in thousands of dollars)? When the poem—her poem–-is auctioned in the literary marketplace, she seems to ask, what price will the auctioneer offer?

 Whatever its purely economic value, song and poem are both linked to aliveness:  “[I]f you live in my ear / so I too might live again—“. In “Poem,” the poet loves the acoustic guitar, however “extinct” it may be in the popular culture; she chooses the “archaic percussion” of clapping, and “always I’ll choose this over all the ones and zeroes”—over money. She chooses making music, clapping (with her own body), or the simple body of the maple wood guitar—over “storyboard” (movie), and over “vocoder” (speech-analyzing synthesizer). In the past, body and its song, weren’t simply economic units; they had spiritual value. At the farthest reaches of American commerce and the speech it entails are the Latin chants of the nuns turning wheels of cheese in the caves of Auvergne in the poem “Inflection.” Language, like the tiniest of organisms, can be endangered; it can become “dead letters,” a Latin no longer spoken.

                   How can we call those words
                   human, when they’ve flown so far
                   from our commerce, our market place?                  

Yet cheese making is a business, and the white-haired girl at the bluegrass festival (in “I and Thou”) who “told us singing was like praying” may be “sublime sublime,” but she will afterward doubtless count the ticket receipts and pocket her share of the proceeds. No accident that the song Pugh chooses to recall from this festival is Metal Gear Solid’s “Heaven Divide”. In any contest between the ethereal and the physical, Pugh sides with the latter:

                    Fill your black hull with white
          moonlight, Stevens said; but Appleseed had fertilized
          the land with something more than light: with scattershot
          blossom and a fruit whose hardness ever will resist
          the tongue and teeth. (“John from Cincinnati”) 

Songs are layered in Pugh’s texts like traces of lemon in a cake or herbs in a dressing, subtle but palpable, as in the lines from “Poem”, referring to the Beatles (“Let It Be”) and (with “Trill it, then, and bury me”) to the heavy metal band Black Tide (“Bury Me”) or to Goldfinger (“Kill Me: Bury Me”). Earth, Wind & Fire makes its way into a poem (“Heideggerian”) on the essential nature of being. Poetic song, too, is here, from the layered voices of John Donne and Wallace Stevens to echoes of Yeats in “how could the voice come silent in such groomed/ space, plash and reverberant?” (“The Voice, Midsummer”). Linguistic jokes and conundrums also abide in poems like “I Am Are You” where the poet “would like to visit Iamareyou.org that haven / for the shut down of the shifter, that tenement / of pronouns in remission.” If John Ashbery mimics better than any living poet the way we tend as humans to remember and forget, Pugh mimes the verbal ways of that subset of humans whose talk is ruled by the frontal cortex—philosophers and linguists.

In the title poem, “The Grain in the Voice,” the narrator is asked why there were no protest songs for Iraq, and whether the poet remembers Ohio (perhaps a reference to the Ohio River Music Festival of 1975 where there would have been plenty of protest music).  The poet demurs. She doesn’t remember the specific political events evoking outrage or mourning, but she does recognize in the song and in the grain of the singer’s voice, the diction of outrage or sorrow. And she seems to be saying, “these are eloquent enough.”

Pugh’s poems manifest a synesthesia of sounds, colors, and emotions––the ways stimulation of one cognitive pathway in the brain leads involuntarily to stimulation of secondary sensory pathways, so (“Ut Pictura Poesis”) the visual sight of elephant seals on the sand is slicked away by distance until “you’ll see them / only in the sirens of their cries”, and in the title poem

                    My ear scribbles sorrow
          every time the stylus writes: a knife
          sheets sparks like a rash of birds
          ascending. Can you hear the
          singer murmur, what is the color? 

Not only does Pugh see color in the sound, see visions in the sparks or feel sorrow in the pen, she s also adept at “hearing voices with the voice”, another Roland Barthes concept the epigram for which precedes Pugh’s Section 2: “Interlude: Recto and Verso.” In loss and bereavement, Pugh hears the voices of the popular singers, the tunes her generation took in like the lullabies of a nursing child. Each poem in this section is followed by a short “Verso” poem of 3 or 5 or 10 lines. The first one, “Verso (Homunculus),” ends:


The preceding poem (the Recto) is called “Harrow” (torment, or heavy machinery with prongs dragged over plowed land), a description of a relationship, possibly, with the lover who writes his poems in sky-blue ink. If, as “Memo/ Harrow /Valentine” suggests, it IS a poem of troubled love, it is a muted expression, one where the loss of the beloved is met and experienced privately through dreams, not in society. The Verso member of another pair seems, in one reading, an acknowledgement of just how deeply matters of love (and art) can be traced back to one’s origins:

          let me gather it as mine
          let me take it in as mine
         the sequin shape of the Man Ray river [32]

Sequins appeared in the art of the modernist artist Man Ray; much as he wished to distance himself from his immigrant origins as the son of a tailor and a seamstress, sequins and other sewing objects found their way into his works, the “sequin shape” of his “river” perhaps inevitable. (The “Man Ray river also has echoes of Ray Charles’ song “Ol’ Man River”.) Nowhere is the interiority more evident than in “How My light Is Spent,” a title taken from Milton’s sonnet with the line “They also serve who only stand and wait,” quoted by Pugh. Grief is as perpetual and impossible to break as a diamond. Her griefs “burnish [her] with elegy.”  Life and death are entwined, just as the bodies of the dead in Guyana after the mass suicide of the People’s Temple members are entwined about each other, as the grape vines were entwined in their first home in Ukiah, California.

Pugh’s inward turning lyrics articulate a metaphor for fear or at least intimidation in the iron lung with its power to dampen human motility. In one interpretation, an iron lung represents a way of coping, of “mask[ing] a melancholy,” as her verso tells us, and of hiding, or finding self-protection. How do people manage to love each other, and how much of it is pure drama as “the mind […] holds the open/ shape of the proscenium”? (“Lilac Garden”)

One of the few poems to step out of its rich, multilayered, and elegant interiority––and speak more directly and movingly to readers––concerns America’s wars. “Ornature,” featured on Poetry Daily, is one. It reads in part:

          The beautiful girl says
          she’ll always be a soldier.
          She’d had a two percent chance
          of waking from the coma.
          Someone has to be that
          two percent, she says
          with a smile. Why not me?
          —And, sackcloth or silk,
          the husk did open. We decorate
          her friends at the end of May.

Another, “Civics II,” memorializes the human rights activist who set himself on fire in Chicago in 2006 to protest the Iraq war.  At the end of this poem, Pugh quotes from Malachi Pitscher’s biblical namesake (Malachi 1:9): “who is there among you that would shut the doors for naught?” The verse continues, although Pugh does not quote it, with: “Even the sons of men, whose teeth are spears and arrows, and their tongue a sharp sword.” Without engaging in act of direct protest, Christine Pugh manages with her ferocity to take a stance for the vitality pulsing from the guitars, drums, vocal chords and typewriters of musicians, singers and poets. In one sense, Pugh’s poems echo and evoke the classic songs of rock and roll, songs like the Styx’s “Come Sail Away with Me,” Neil Young’s “Hey Hey My My,” or the Rolling Stones’ “As Tears Go By.” In another sense, the poems in Grains of the Voice have their own music, their rhythm tight, dense, multilayered. Not the lyrics of rock and roll, but the mesmerizing beat beneath it. 

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, and soon in a third book, Fracas and Asylum, which 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 later this year.

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.