Book Review

Perhaps no other poet than Fiona Sze-Lorrain could be the author of the provocative and challenging poems in her fourth collection, Rain in Plural. Often the poems strive to be lyrics, but to rephrase Yeats’s famous line––the sense cannot hold, and they become lyrical in their beauty and musical playfulness while eluding conventional meanings. Each poem invites the reader into an ecstatically decorated room, and as we’re admiring a painting, the wall behind us transforms.

Many of the poems evoke the act of writing, the machinations of poetry or a specific poet, and often question the role and function of writing; poetry is engaged to dreams or a dream-state, and the surprising word-choices shift us into a world where clocks drip and “We enter each other from the inside / of this world, opal light, lighter and august.” In the poem “Muse, if I,” Sze-Lorrain writes,

[Muse, if I] idealized you without knowing why, the man
or woman in a photograph from the warfront
would metamorphose into a whale or luffa.

And a few lines later, “My typewriter / passed out from a crime.” The lightly surreal language persists in nearly every poem. In one of her “Nine Solitudes,” a series of prose poems, she writes, “Minus the entrance of Marquis de Sade who giggled and stumbled with a chunk of fatty meat tucked under his arm, my dream involves Sappho’s hair, robe, and fear.”

In addition to the explicit references to dreams, nearly every line has a dream-like sensibility where the syntax and the language don’t quite match, and a reader is left breathless, grasping at pieces of the syntactic ship blown up in the lake of meaning. A gentle example occurs in the poem “Preface to a Cloud Chronicle” in the final two lines where we read, “Watch the lake grow its spleen and stomach / and a sudden rouge in a soft life span.” In the poem “Sea Ballads” in section V, “Late Shower,” we hear “pared down to mist and a snare of light, the boat in your whisper lures a plainsong out of us.” For a moment, we think we put our hands around a meaning, but the line slips eel-like from our fingers, and we feel the beauty but not all of its implications.

I am not arguing the poems are incoherent or senseless, but rather that their delight comes from bringing attention to what is in between the reader’s expectations and what the language delivers. In the poem “After Being Loved,” for example, we hear “if not for the door, light / would be sentenced to life without parole.” In the poem “A Matter of Time,” we encounter another febrile image: “What’s left behind of the field / reminds me of this body. A wounded / horse which must suffer in order to live.” We are never more than a step from fresh-turned beauty, and each line is a plow tilling new wonders.

The final poems in the collection serve as a kind of coda to the other stylistic and thematic elements, often repeating lines or taking the same lines and breaking them differently to emphasize effect or shift meaning. A microscopic attention to language like E. E. Cummings meets a more universal appreciation. Each line is a gong strike of puns and echoes like Joyce’s Finnegans Wake as the language swells and ebbs and finally reminds us we are in a magician’s hands, and she produces the rabbit and simultaneously makes it vanish. “The problem isn’t you. I too have never visited a zoo,” Sze-Lorrain says in the “The Great Wall of China,” and she seems to smile at her own genius and our inability to touch the face of these poems with her last line, a punning nod to the poet’s gift: “I won’t paint your dream in this portrait.”

Many of the poems resonate with a political undertone, and they often suggest in the midst of great threats we persist and continue our important work, aware we alone are not the only or even the most vulnerable. The poems care about the larger world and our current crises. The construction of the first poem, “More Vulnerable Than Others,” allows us to see the conceit by asking “So what if I break,” and then answering, “each flower falls / to its own bad dream.” And perhaps her position appears more explicitly in “Not Meant as Poems”:

I am not a journalist
or part-time activist, I come here
on a whim, of free will.
For a poem . . .
Down with spectators!
Shame on curiosity!

These lovely poems slide between equally compelling realities that don’t seem to belong together but ultimately unify and bring sense, compassion, and beauty: a satin-appointed carriage bumping across an old bridge or, more to their illuminating quality, stained glass windows put together just a bit off plan but resplendent with light.

About the Reviewer

Kyle Torke is a teacher of writing and reading, and he has published in every major genre. His most recent books include Sunshine Falls, a collection of nonfiction essays, and Clementine the Rescue Dog children's books.