Of all the literary arts, poetry is the one most tightly tied to culture. Fiction has stories and non-fiction has facts, both of which exist independently of the words used to express them. Poetry, however, is the words, and along with the words, the shades of meaning and context that culture brings along.
Fiona Sze-Lorrain, poet, literary translator, editor, and zheng harpist, hails from Singapore, but has long lived in Paris. She translates poetry from Chinese and writes in English. The poetry in her newest collection, , is neither a mélange nor a mosaic of cultural, intellectual and linguistic referents, but a deeply intertwined layering. A single poem will reference Kant, Donne, Burke and Osamu Dazai; another has Heidegger, black pepper crabs, Taiwan, laksa in London, Callas, Plisetskaya, dim sum at the Shangri-La and Pope Francis. Cities and places trip off the page: Sze-Lorrain is evidently just at home throughout Asia as she is in Paris, Milan and New York. A poem with a line like
On a night like this, I hear the spirit
in simple three-four beat.
will be followed by a poem that starts
I broke my guzheng, string by string.
This sounds like it might be butterfly poetry for the Instagram age, touching down and flying off again, but Sze-Lorrain is a poet for thinkers: her poetry is much more about ideas than descriptions. It’s not that she can’t do description; she can:
Three nights before his death, I described the sweetness
of his tortilla de patatas to a stranger
who became my neighbor, a singer whose ears looked pointed but not elvish
enough to trigger a blank verse…
But Sze-Lorrain seems more intent to provoke thoughts than images:
I have no poems on maternity.
In an Asian culture, that’s a sin, a one-
way ticket to Hades.
There are explicit reference to the language and its construction:
after an elliptical prayer—noun A, noun B,
and a passive-active verb—
and references to the art of writing, as in the poem addressed “To Critics”
who dig up a word or clause from its grave,
expose its antipodal
I take you seriously.
Adjectives that manhandle a range
of emotions, fit to be converted to even digits.
I’ve folded into two, four, eight, twelve . . .
There’s narrative too, an entire story compressed into a dozen words
I fidget with a stone inkpot,
never empty, never filled.
Or in the poem “Arioso”, which in its entirety goes
Fingers are thinking like the Peranakan queen
who takes a morning stroll with shoulder-high creepers.
But above all ideas, and variations on ideas; Sze-Lorrain can pack a lot into a small space as in this short poem “To Suffering, To Liberation:
I address you not as twin sisters,
but as two fruits hanging from the same branch of a tree
planted by an agnostic farmer. He prayed for harvest in October,
asked for a wife
season after season, coveting the life
of a painter who drew from scratch
a still life of two pears in a basket—
simple but climactic,
they looked equal
yet dissimilar, recognized by him who planted their tree.
Sze-Lorrain seems at home and a visitor everywhere, connecting dots across cultures and continents, dipping into languages and cuisines. If there is a globalized future for English-language literature, this is perhaps an early glance at it.
Peter Gordon is editor of the Asian Review of Books.