- Water the Moon
The title of Fiona Sze-Lorrain's debut poetry collection resonates with the sensual French melody of "Eau la Lune" and the staccato Chinese tonality of "Shui Yuèliàng." Indeed, Water the Moon is a book in which these two languages are in dialogue with each other—a dialogue expressed in the English language of the poems themselves. To write this book in French or Chinese would not have allowed a space of neutrality necessary for Sze-Lorrain to fully explore the intersection of these two languages and cultures. The arc of the book navigates the sense of otherness necessarily connected to expatriation, beginning with poems set in the speaker's homeland of China, then moving on to poems anchored in her adopted homeland of France. These English-language poems burst at the seams with the customs, gastronomy, ancestry, literature, and art of the two cultures that inscribe the book's elliptical narrative arc.
The first section of the book is titled "Biography of Hunger," which foregrounds the role food will play throughout the collection in providing a physical connection to the home culture. In the opening poem, "My Grandmother Waters the Moon," words and ingredients become one and the same, as the traditional Chinese meal that the speaker's grandmother prepares is imaged as a written text: "First, she imagines an encrypted message, / longevity in Chinese characters, // ideograms of dashed bamboo and mandarin / ducks." The food-as-text imagery develops over the course of the poem, conveying the ancient lore of her native land:
… molding her message on topof each crust, she now gives it a mosaic look.War strategy? Emperor Chu Yuan-chang
performed the same ritual. He who'd constructa new dynasty, slipped espionage notes
The speaker's grandmother makes mooncakes as "[a] snack / to nibble for her granddaughter … sleeping on her back," no doubt in a traditional mei tai baby carrier. The old Chinese woman will literally feed the words she created from bamboo and shredded duck to the speaker. There is no trope, no figurative language involved in poetically expressing this act. The speaker, as a baby, literally ingests her ancestors' inherited texts and is physically nourished by her culture's historical and literary traditions.
Later in the first section is a poem titled "Tibet," in which the tongue becomes not only the organ by which one's culture continues to thrive via its food but also via its language. Set in a country that itself has long been the center of dispute over its selfhood, the poem begins at a border crossing: "Without papers, he translated / his name on a knotted / French tongue." A border is a cultural boundary that surpasses the physical demarcation of [End Page 158] land: once this border is crossed and the homeland is left behind, this Chinese name will never again be spoken by a Chinese tongue, and therefore never again be pronounced correctly. This fact is highlighted by the dramatic line break after "foreign":
as if pronouncing, my visagedefines a painting that parentsno title, it is a bowl can yousee it? containing red
dustburying alive the foreignname
The middle of the poem tells that "Those who perished / before arriving / built their tombs in those / who escaped," suggesting that the native culture persists in the "foreigner" status of those who leave their country. However, it becomes clear that the individualized self is the more persistent force as this section of the book draws to an end. For example, the poem "Odyssey" begins with a line of inverted syntax, denoting the language of ancient wisdom: "Says a Buddhist parchment, / everyone has a twin sister." But the speaker refuses to be thus connected, insisting "Mine instructed me to cut her away, / an umbilical cord infected with love" and, in a line dramatically indented and standing alone, "(I'm not your doppelganger!)." Later in the poem, the speaker refers to the fact that "I left her for France," clearly choosing selfhood over ancestry. To seal the deal, in the following poem, "The Sun Temple," the speaker...