Mandarin Duck avec Sartre
Marick Press, 2009
Early on in Gao Xingjian’s play The Other Shore there comes a moment when the troupe of actors, bound together by ropes, stand at the river’s edge and attempt to cross:
… We’re drifting in the river.
Like corks on a string.
And like water weed.
Why are we going to the other shore? I really don’t
Right, why do we want to go to the other shore?
The other shore is the other shore, you’ll never reach
But you still want to go, to see what it’s like over there.
If we take this metaphorical other shore to be the Buddhist land of enlightenment, there’s good reason they will never reach it. Limited by their desires and their karma, they are stuck in the river, suffering together, doomed to repeat their futile slaps at the surface. And who has time for devotion when it’s a struggle just to keep your head up? For Gao, we are all in the river, yearning for the other shore, for new beginnings: an escape from solitude or repression, a chance for a different or a better life, or for our voices to be heard.
In her first collection of poems, Water the Moon, Fiona Sze-Lorrain invokes this other shore, taking us on an odyssey across countries and cultures, through time and across generations. From Singapore, she reaches the very real shores of New York and France, testing the boundaries of language and culture, becoming a polyglot voice of the diaspora.
|Her vision pushes both ways — backward to the China of Mao and the displacement of millions, and forward to her new life in Europe. “Leave your roots. Leave your ancestors,” she implores the reader. “No life is measured by absence.”
Yet Sze-Lorrain realizes the difficulties. She has reached the other shore “as if packed in a coffin.” Rivers have become for her “the gaps between words.” Communication now, especially with loved ones, turns increasingly arduous: “Toughest to travel is the distance / between two people.” When her father sends her a letter with “nothing but instructions / Confucian wisdom (One must not sit / on a mat that is not straight)” Sze-Lorrain, “ailing with loneliness,” sits in her apartment between window and door, waiting in vain “for more / than a paper response.”
In Dear Paris, the title of the second section and its first poem, she examines her exile more closely. She quotes C.P. Cavafy: “You won’t find a new country, won’t find another shore. This city will always pursue you.” Indeed, it is in the Paris poems, the book’s pivot, where she tries to make sense of it all. Whether it is tenderly bathing her husband, taking her time “like a monk pouring tea” or eating grilled langoustines “embarrassed, / confessing regrets for not wrapping [her] hands around grease,” Sze-Lorrain lands us in a Paris where neither she nor her readers can quite feel comfortable; but where she has no intention of leaving:
All your youth, you tried using words to shape
memories until they danced and balanced on straight
lines. Yet, you flee — with a bleeding heart, you flee
all your life along a shadowed curve.
And so the ironies of existence mount. Fleeing along a shadowed curve takes her right back to the starting point. The backward glance in turn becomes occasion for thinking of home. The author seems to be saying, “I’ll take even this little bit, even if it’s not perfect.” Eating congee in an air-conditioned mall across from a bronze statue of Moliere, she thinks of her father and how he would most likely scold her for her foolishness, “lavishing ten euros . . . on such a plain dish.” Or moving “down an alley where the exiled throw tomatoes from / balconies,” where “street names are spelt backwards,” a place where “no one can vote,” the author passes quickly.
For Sze-Lorrain the past, or more specifically, her relationship to the past, remains unbroken. Her physical exile has not exiled her memories. Indeed, the title of the collection refers to a step in the process of making mooncakes — a Chinese pastry eaten during the Mid-Autumn Festival — during which her grandmother would sprinkle the dough with green tea before baking. The cakes, imprinted on top with the characters for “longevity” or “harmony” would then be decorated with flowers, vines, or perhaps a rabbit — a symbol of the moon.
If her many references to the moon are, at least in part, a nod to Chinese poetry, the tears quietly dropping from other poems are more difficult to work out. In Mysticism for a False Beginner tears “imagine themselves as rain,” then drop from the sky and flower into light. In We’ll Always Have Her they “dismantle sleep and fall as autumn leaves.” Very late in the collection they well up in a parody play of Gertrude Stein, though to what end, Sze-Lorrain remains elusive: “What cannot be questioned is what her question is and what cannot be answered is what my answer is.” Sentiment does play a part for sure, but more, the sixty-six references to tears ask the reader to rethink the meaning of exile. “Think twice about sadness” she tells us. But she’s aware that tragedy and sadness are not at all nice: “You looked at your trauma without sitting next to it.” Still, she can reflect on a naïve and romantic version of herself, one who cried while playing Chopin, telling herself it’s okay to reconstruct the past if done “realistically.”
Sze-Lorrain does ask a lot of the reader. And the diligent reader is rewarded. Google Dipu Lipatti and Brassai. Bone up on Chinese history. Get a copy of Machado. Babblefish Verfremdungseffekt. Though, to be fair, most of the references are not obscure. Many are iconic: Man Ray’s photograph Larmes, Van Gogh’s swirls, Stephen Hawking’s time, Stein’s stuttering, Arbus’s twins. The political figures of Mao, Sarkozy, and De Gaulle. Shades of Rimbaud. Merrilesque moves, phrasings, and demeanor. It all adds up to a rich arabesque in which the breadth of her referencing traces the diversity of her seeing and being in the world, the world of the exile where everything is new, everything must be examined, nothing can be “right in the middle,” the senses are mixed, a street is a finger, where a man imitating Li Po can sit comfortably in a sentence next to a Bolshevik Film about Tsars.
And with these back and forth movements through time and space, time-space, “Days connect years, years become places —” Sze-Lorrain exhibits a flair for border crossings. Yet with such an obvious thrust toward the working out of the movements of bodies through space and time, the narrative element in her work at times crowds out language and music. And that’s too bad, for when “everything else is an illusion” and “Sartre and mandarin ducks are the mural decor” we are much less interested in what the waiter is doing or who is standing where in the Gare du Nord.
Certainly, Sze-Lorrain does more than paint vignettes or tell stories – in A Course in Subtlety, for instance, she teaches us how to read her work:
(A stanza break should be read)
Or, she uses the particular details of an event (introduction of French husband to mother wearing purple cheongsam, speaking Cantonese, smoking a cigar) to discover or illuminate a larger point:
Vérité — this word contains a curious
life between being honest
and being truthful.
Often the difference carries a poem,
an imaginary portrait.
Underneath the references and erudition lies a tenderness, a searching and a questioning. When a three hundred pound man with soiled trousers stops on the platform of her poem, sliding forward on his cane and falling, she asks: “Why did everyone pretend nothing had happened?” Sze-Lorrain wants a kinder, fairer world where solitude is “prized,” where only poetry is “fierce,” and shame stinks. She wants accountability from history’s villains, the Chairman Maos and Napoleons. She wants to “touch hope” even if she can’t trust her hands.
Sze-Lorrain is no Orwell or Henry Miller, down and out in the metropolis. She understand and recognizes her privilege. But she does more than that. Upon coming out of a chocolate shop in Brussels the narrator is accosted by a blind boy begging for some candy. After giving him some pistachio nougatine she reflects:
I knew about appetites
dissolving slowly into tales about hunger —
holding my tongue,
I ate nothing the entire day.
Ed McFadden is a writer living in Portland, Oregon.