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What We’re Reading: My Funeral Gondola

2013 June 13
by Wren

What We're Readingmy funeral gondolaMy Funeral Gondola by Fiona Sze-Lorrain (Mãnoa Books and El Leon Literary Arts, 2013)

Despite the dark title, My Funeral Gondola by Fiona Sze-Lorrain is much more meditative than dark. Sure, there are poems about the speaker’s death, and funeral—but even those have more wonderment about them than anger or loss. That’s not to say there is no sense of loss—there is a child who left the world too early that haunts the speaker, and there is healing that is needed. But the poems don’t stay on a purely meditative level; rather, Sze-Lorrain captivates us with her surprising use of pithy humor, sensuality, and bold honesty.

These are sparsely written poems, and Sze-Lorrain is an expert at utilizing white space to help the reader find echoes of their own thoughts between the pages. As she writes herself in one of the final poems, “Return to Self”, “The whiteness of this page can’t appease my hurt.” This emptiness resurfaces in unexpected moments, and we plunge through the meditative level down to the depths of grief. Another one of the poems where we feel this grief completely is “Trouville, 2011.” It starts with “By the seas the past comes tiding from toes to fingers. Rising or falling, we hear the break of us. We come to heal because a child left us,” before launching into the speaker building sand castles with soldiers in a mini-opera. Juxtaposed with this child-like activity of making sandcastles, and allowing the speaker and reader a sort of distance from reality, the poem finds its mark at the end with “Do you really know how to feel empty. Nine times out of ten, it is an accident. One sand castle falls, then more. And all.”

The rhythm and tone of the overall collection is lyrical, but with some surreal dream-like moments that capture the imagination. While there are more questions asked than answers found, there is a sense of peace that feels therapeutic. The questions in this collection aren’t usually marked with a question mark; instead, they end with a period, or in some cases, no punctuation at all. These are questions that the speaker simply does not have the answers for, because some questions are too heart-breaking. But instead of utter despair, there is a sense of acceptance of these unanswerable questions that the speaker wrestles with throughout. As Sze-Lorrain writes in the poem “Now Meditate,” it’s about letting go of what can’t be controlled (like death): “Let it go, / this chestful of sky. / My stomach turns from stone / to birds.”

The subtle dry humor sprinkled throughout pleasantly surprised and lifted me out of the even-keeled emotional plane of meditation, or the echoing depths of loss. One of the funniest poems, “Digesting an Academic Symposium, Some Months Back,” turns a wry, observing eye to the ironies of academics. Other humor is nestled unexpectedly in the arms of something deeper, lightening the mood, but always finding a smart observation of the world.

There are many common threads that keep resurfacing throughout the poems. Sze-Lorrain writes across cultures, bringing in French, Italian, Chinese, and African influences, among others. This is not surprising, as Sze-Lorrain herself is multi-lingual and has frequently translated other authors’ and poets’ work into or from French, Chinese, and English. Perhaps due to the fact that she is also a zheng harpist, many of the poems reference musical terms and tonalities. Additionally, as a practiced orchid healer, Sze-Lorrain’s poems often refer to the flowers and the healing process in general.

The speaker’s husband resurfaces throughout, and through many of these references, sensuality and sexuality are explored in a very visceral way. In the poem “Pearl,” she marries sexual tension with a sense of old love: “My tongue / gagged. I dipped into cold tea / a lemon tart. A lump of sugar sank / at the bottom of my cup. It was your / body. It was my heart.” Not only is there sexual tension, but in many of the poems, her enjambment leaves a subtle tease at the end of each line. Her honesty that we, the reader, sees, but the other characters in the poem sometimes don’t, makes us feel lucky to be let in to her world. This ebb and flow of teasing and admittance into a secret place, fully captured my attention. In the poem “Before the Museum of Waiting,” she employs both of these tactics for an excellent result, as seen in this excerpt:

There hangs the window where I spent my twenties,

slicing oranges,
living between cigarettes and unfinished

fiction. I learned Vivaldi’s concertos
by heart and stopped writing

letters to my Jewish godmother. Sometimes,
the city woke up

before kiosks opened.
My newspaper never arrive on time.

Walking past this brownstone, you ask if I miss
this life in parentheses,

shortchanging sincerity with plans
and auditions. I dip my finger

into your gelato, and pretend to think
hard. Wondering if our tall

rosewood highboy still wobbles
behind the curtains, I guess there needs

no answer for the past.

This is a book that stays with you past the last poem. The collection’s contained emotional weight and balancing act of humor, loss, and acceptance prove the poet’s impressive skill.

Sze-Lorrain currently lives in France. She is an editor at Cerise Press, and has a previous poetry collection published entitled Water the Moon.

What other poets balance multiples sensibilities such as deep loss with wry humor, or meditation with surprises?


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