Reviews / August 2009 (Issue 8)

Artful Interactions: Departure and Transformation in Gillian Sze's Fish Bones

by Viki Holmes


Gillian Sze, Fish Bones, DC Books, 2009. 65 pgs.

Winnipeg-born Gillian Sze suggests that her first collection is "ultimately a collection of conversations", and the Wallace Stevens epigraph that fronts Fish Bones acts as a further signpost—"for the listener…"

But poetry, as life, as art, is rarely as simple as all that. In this collection, the listener may be a distant lover, a family member, a departed friend, or things less animate: a cantaloupe melon, a jar, a bracelet of fish bones. For Sze's poetry is ekphrastic; that is to say, she writes in reaction to pieces of art. And in doing so, her descriptions take on a life of their own. Ekphrasis comes from the Greek: to speak out, to proclaim—and here is where the conversations begin. For Sze, art is not static, no conversation is. Instead, her poems are a gleaming point of interaction between object and viewer. She looks to art, to other poems, to the relationships woven through her life, and expects a response, an answer.

Answers, however, are not always forthcoming. Dialogue is difficult; it is hard to speak, sometimes even painful. Only distance makes truth possible. Sze's collection opens with "Cantaloupe", an exploration of the frailty of words, the difficulty of communication. She begins with the conditional: "If you were here…" and the pattern of absence is set. For often the conversations that resonate are imaginary, or directed to the far, far away. It is fitting that the collection ends with a crown of unrhymed sonnets directed to an absent lover: a circular journey marked by the repetition of lines and the final return to where she began: "Take-off is always the difficult part."

And here again, that conditional "If you were here…" implicit within the entirety of the poem. Sze ends where she has begun, though the journey has changed her. And as much as she is always taking off, she is always leaving something behind: and so the subjects inhabiting her poems: a sister left behind, children moving out, a discarded stroller; the speaker in the poems so often leaving her flat, her apartment, her friend's house….

I enjoyed the tarot-and-Tennyson inspired "She Has A Lovely Face", with its shifts between past, present and future, and the pleasing aphorism: "No-one blamed Orpheus/for looking back, except Orpheus." An interesting association, this, blame and looking back—particularly as Sze devotes a poem to that other mythological figure whose inability to let go of what is past transforms her irrevocably: Lot's wife, turned into a pillar of salt as, against God's instruction, she turns back to gaze on the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.

Departure and transformation: for art is nothing if not what is left behind: what links the past with the present, a record of life—like fossils. This for me was the significance of the bracelet of fish bones that gives Sze's collection its title and lies, gleaming, besides the heap of fruit at her aunt's table. In "Playing Fish Bones", the teacup at the poem's beginning, whose "mouth is a flattened moon" is a neat foreshadowing of the salmon bones strung together that form "a mouth forced open".

But these mouths cannot speak freely. Flattened, forced open, the objects surrounding Sze speak, or attempt to, but there is a sense of compulsion and negation, a kind of violence hinted at in "Tending Ice Gardens", where Memory is both "furious and suffocating". This violence appears more overtly in poems such as "fragmented" where Sze is attacked by the city, finding "bitefuls of me" on the curb—now it is the poet's turn to be consumed and interpreted.

It is clear that there has been much craft in this debut. Sze links her ideas and images with the delicacy of a woman threading fish bones together to make a bracelet. The art she perceives becomes a medium for exploring big themes: blame, loss, history, love, death. Sze's quest for meaning results in objects of beauty. And there are times when this potent combination of beauty and violence makes the reader gasp. The worlds Sze creates; the worlds she perceives and makes her own, are complete, cohesive, self-contained. And there's the rub. The visions she presents can be like a beautiful circle, turning on itself: outside of time. Circles have no beginning, no end—and hence no point of entry. There were moments when I longed for my own ekphrastic epiphany, but found the poems so complete as to no longer require a response. Gorgeous and meticulous, but leaving me somehow untouched. But those moments are countered by an accuracy of perception in lines such as "I meant to write something that said,/Yes, I know what you mean." This opening line from "To John Lyman and the Portrait of His Father" (first published in issue #5 of Cha) for me conveys exactly why we write, what drives us: the very essence of what poetry is. So yes, Gillian, I know what you mean.

Editors' note: A new poem by Gillian Sze is published in this issue (issue #8) of Cha. Sze's poetry has also been featured in issues #5 and #6 of the journal.

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