CUTBANK REVIEWS: My Funeral Gondola by Fiona Sze-Lorrain
My Funeral Gondola
By Fiona Sze-Lorrain
Manoa Books/ El Leon Literary Arts, 2013
Review by Christina Cook
Fiona Sze-Lorrain’s latest collection of poetry, My Funeral Gondola, is threaded through with intimate questions that challenge traditional notions of place and self, however, it yields no definitive answers. The precision with which she approaches her exploration is almost surgical, and rife with surprising juxtapositions.
The title poem, for example, is a single sentence that extends into the space of the page with a feathery lightness, unexpectedly defying the weight of a dirge. Punctuationless, its short stanzas collectively create the sound of a stringed instrument, with lines of mostly short but varying lengths each representing a note. The poem begins:
My Funeral Gondola
has nothing to do
it positions itself
midway in a straight – so that shadows
in a trance
by the woods
by the sun
travel over it
A single note, two three-note chords, a dyad, another single note. Music more than pervades Sze-Lorrain’s collection; it is the boat which moves us through the book’s calm waters and shadowy canals. The deft use of alliteration and slant rhyme, combined with the precisely orchestrated timing of caesuras, stanza breaks, and enjambment, creates one sonorous line after another that propels us forward. Some of the most resonant lines in the book can be heard in the poems’ openings: “Diva” begins with “She sings about secrets taken to the grave,/ her voice scattering an octave to the winds”; “Trouville, 2011” begins “By the sea the past comes tiding from toes to fingers”; and “Jeux d’eau”—“Until the quavers become feathers of a fountain, Ravel remains a beast that charges through the room.”
Sze-Lorrain’s experience as an accomplished ancient Chinese zither concertist is readily apparent in the control of timing that adds to the musicality of the poems. In the above-quoted lines from “My Funeral Gondola,” note how she uses the enjambment of the short lines and the caesura in the middle of the one longer line, together with the refrain-like repetition of the “with” and “by” stanzas, to tightly orchestrate the tempo at which the poem is read.
Indeed, many of the lines throughout the poem could only have been written by someone who has herself worked to master a musical stringed instrument. This perspective lends insight throughout poems such as “Listening to Tchaikovsky, Rain Suddenly Pours,” which opens with
Many fingers caught in invisible
webs, a museum of spiders
struggle to waltz. Insecure chords
cloak silence in pleas,
notes were transformed
the weight of hunger and something
lost. I am supposed to transcribe
the coda of this wrong. A tragedy
The speaker’s engagement with this music is described intimately, by someone whose fingers know the strings of her instrument as if they are an extension of her own hands. The words do not convey the thoughts of the speaker listening to the music, but rather her interior experience of recreating the music with her fingers on the strings of her instrument.
Fingers are not only vehicles of music throughout these poems; so too are they vehicles of light. In “Clair de Lune,” a five-fingered poem—that is, a poem made up of five long lines of verse—we are told that “Moonlight filtered through like fingerbones.” And in “Javanese Wayang,” the title referring to an ancient tradition of shadow-puppet theater,
long fingers of light drag up a torn
hero. Self by self, he steals
away from his body. Gamelan enters:
the neighborly dark
roams. Watch the shadows, not
Just as in wayang kulit, shadows are the most critical locale in the poem, appearing throughout. In “Neither an Elegy Nor a Dream,” the speaker “rode on shadows and looked for white. Trying to remember our last time,” and in “After the Moon,” she sees
So many shadows,
so few ghosts—I am lonely
in this imperfect end.
In “Monuments Against Sundown,” we are told, “A man doesn’t walk with his ghosts. He walks with his shadow,” and in the title poem, “shadows/in a trance//by the woods/by the sun//travel over” her funeral gondola. Shadows are patches of darkness created by light: we inhabit them and create them; indeed they are inseparable from us. Unlike ghosts, there is no question of their existence, no supernatural element of our experience of them. They carry with them a very real metaphorical dread and physical chill.
The background to all these poems, of course, is not Venice, but the mood of Venice—courtesy of the book’s title. It is perhaps the most visually intriguing city in the world, with shadows spilling at sharp angles in the labyrinthine alleyways and narrow canals; archways and gates casting ornate shadows across piazzas in the early morning or late day sun. Lights dodges and plays with its obstacles, creating a theater of shadows which Sze-Lorrain uses to full effect.
In the title poem, Sze-Lorrain refers to an episode in Venice’s history, and music’s history, which ties all these elements together, stating “My Funeral Gondola/has nothing to do//with Liszt/with Wagner/with Tranströmer.” Richard Wagner, who had married Franz Liszt’s daughter Cosima, died in Venice in 1883. Upon Wagner’s death, Liszt recomposed the work he had originally composed while visiting Wagner and Cosima in the palace they rented on the Grand Canal a year earlier, titling the work “La Lugubre Gondola.” In 1997, Tomas Transtömer wrote a collection of poetry that heavily alludes to this work and this episode, which has been variously translated as “Sorrow Gondola No. 2,” “La Lugubre Gondola No. 2,” and “Grief Gondola No. 2.” It was the first book Transtömer wrote after suffering from stroke at the age of 66—only four years younger than the age at which Wagner died—and the collection has been read as a sustained mediation on mortality.
In opening the title poem as she does, Sze-Lorrain both joins in the literary tradition that has grown up around this elegiac musical work and separates her book from it. She foregrounds the fact that she is borrowing the music, the mood, the story, for a background to the collection. One poem in particular alludes to this ambivalence: in “When the Title Took its Life” she writes
The saddest lines
wish to know how they left
and why I imprison them
along margins. Abbreviated
but exhausted from labor.
Tonight, they wreak revenge
on my mortal hand —
The poem relates how its “Title Took its Life” in that it describes both her birthing of it (“Abbreviated/but exhausted from labor”) and the death-impulse that defines its meaning (“Erase me.”). In just the same way, the poems in this collection navigate the shadows and music of this historical episode with poise and grace, yet the stunning novelty of her imagery and prosody, and her own unique perspective, make it her own autonomous body of work—one that stands alone in its music, poetry, and visual richness.
Fiona Sze-Lorrain’s debut poetry title, Water the Moon, appeared in 2010. In addition to her books of translation of contemporary Chinese poets from Zephyr Press and prose translations of Hai Zi forthcoming from Tupelo, she has co-edited the anthologies, Sky Lanterns: New Poetry from China, Formosa and Beyond (2012) and On Freedom: Spirit, Art and State (2013), both from the University of Hawai‘i Press/Mãnoa. A founding editor of Cerise Press and a contributing editor of Mãnoa: A Pacific Journal of International Writing, she works as a cultural critic and an editor at Vif Éditions in Paris, France.
Christina Cook is the author of Lake Effect (Finishing Line Press, 2012). Her most recent work has appeared in New Ohio Review, Crab Orchard Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, and Cimarron Review. She works as the senior writer for the president of Dartmouth College and lives in Hanover, New Hampshire.