Reviews / May 2010 (Issue 11)

Confessions: Fiona Tinwei Lam's Enter the Chrysanthemum

by Martin Alexander


Fiona Tinwei Lam, Enter the Chrysanthemum, Caitlin Press, 2009. 86 pgs.

This is a confessional collection. A single mother struggles with the banal tragedies of a particular life: the experience is commonplace, but Lam expresses it with distinctive tenderness, restraint and intensity. She elevates the collection's remarkably consistent voice into one that recalls and transcends the specific truth of her own life to articulate the common truths of others. It's the difficult trick of defamiliarization—making it new.

Though there are one or two poems which present an event, explain an idea or describe a situation—leaving the reader to assume its essence—most of these poems succeed because they are precise distillations of particular experience. One quality of the best writing is that it can take us from representation instantly to the thing itself—as the sudden return of a long-forgotten smell can transport us at warp-speed into an acute awareness of the emotional intensity and physical solidity of a specific moment in our past. This is profoundly different from the deliberate, laborious page-turning back to the kind of memory of a memory which is just a tepid diary, distanced from the thing itself by what we have already told ourselves about it.

Of course, this poetic facility is an artist's illusion—a deliberate concoction and construction of words to work the invisibly transformative magic of literature, but Lam does it very consistently.

Enter the Chrysanthemum is also a cohesive collection: it covers a comprehensive range of experience across a series of lives and it's not surprising that, as the daughter of doctors, Lam dissects those lives with careful precision. Neither is it surprising that in all those layers of vital tissue, she finds the little cancers of disruption and decay.

There's vital tissue in the robust mother in Lam's childhood kitchen, "massaging the paste into muscle" ("New Year's Eve"); though later, in her mother's dementia, she finds

our childhood jammed
in downstairs drawers – Monopoly, Snakes and Ladders
minus the tokens, the dice. And that old box
in the furnace room, packed
with tangled extension cords, connecting
nothing to nothing. ("Return")

In "Shower", reminiscent of Plath's "You're", there's this on her son:

Our little otter,
he's as sleek and slick as when he slid
from my womb.

But even here—in a poem which makes us believe that it was written in that moment of joy, a celebration of her early happiness in marriage, and a poem which speak in the present tense of "Those mornings we're together, the three of us"—there's also a premonition of loss: "Only water/will love me when you are gone."

Very recently, J. K. Rowling, in the Times, wrote compellingly of the "lone parent" and the muddy, helpless desperation into which she (and it is almost always a "she") can sink. Lam too, sinks, as the bedrock of her parents, her marriage and her self crumble beneath her.

But like the apple in her son's drawing at the end of the last poem in this collection—"Still, Life" —(and in the wry survival suggested by that comma) Lam's poems resist too much gravity. She deals with the arc of three generations as they experience, variously, birth, childhood, divorce, disintegration and death. Grave enough, in every sense—and Lam leaves us in no doubt that our end and hers is to be "mere husks/sourly persisting, as humans do." Nevertheless, one closes this book, after all its anatomization of life's overwhelming disappointments, losses and despair, with a strangely uplifting sense of optimism.

This is partly because of the hope and consolation—and the new beginning—that her son provides against the crumbling of everything else: she redefines her identity and helps her son to build his. Lam says, in "Kindergarten at the Transylvania Flower Restaurant" that they are gathering it "crumb by crumb."

It's also because she brings the reader into the intensity of the moment, while keeping herself a little removed by wry humour and wise understanding. There can be good writing that abandons itself entirely to passion, but this is rare and depends on rare genius: those who attempt it are more often in the realm of therapy than art. Lam's is a necessary distance of perspective and craft—she needs, paradoxically, to put herself calmly outside the experience in order to bring the reader into its intensity.

The collection begins with images of strong and dependable, but distant, parents. In "Chrysanthemum," Lam's mother's sensitivity to art is lovingly evoked, though the last lines of the poem undermine the beauty of that evocation:

If only I had been paper,
a delicate, upturned face stroked
with such precise tenderness.

Lam's father, a doctor with all the authority of his role, is powerfully conveyed in the second poem, "Before Breakfast"; but here too, as he finishes dressing, he becomes "the father I knew best….readied to leave us." The next poem, "Waiting", is also poignant, as the child endures an endless hiatus in the car before her father's return.

These introductory poems prepare the reader for what is to come—abandonment, birth, loss and re-birth. There is an interleaving of experiences in the collection: her own childhood and that of her son; the disintegration of her parents' love and of her own marriage; the deaths of her once-immortal parents and her struggle to rebuild something from the mess.

"Remembrance Day," "Walking" and "Offering" are among her most moving tributes to her dead parents, and here Lam's voice is true and strong. I have returned often to these three poems. The first takes us on a rare excursion away from her family, to watch her grandfather felled by the Japanese; and it puts him in a line of beaten men that pauses, in our own time, at Guantanamo. "Walking" speaks tenderly in her mother's demented voice as she struggles to communicate; and "Offering"—like "Chrysanthemum Tea," which follows—takes us back to where the collection started, and at the same time, further enriches the resonance of the opening poem.

Possibly the most despairing and miserable single-parent poem of the lot—"Park"—is saved from self-indulgence by the distance of the third person. At the end there is exclusion and the loneliness of unattainable proximity—"her weary, loving face/on the perimeter of joy"—but there is also the recognition that such a thing as joy exists.

One of the later poems in the sequence—"Omelet"—about breaking eggs to make something good, is prefaced with a quotation from Carol Ann Duffy: "Some days, although we cannot pray, a prayer utters itself…." This I think is part of the positive in this selection: Lam examines sadness and loss with clinical objectivity, and recognises that moments of epiphany occur of their own accord out of other things.

Like Duffy's The World's Wife, this collection is thematic and tightly structured. Lam nods again at Duffy, telling a rather bland single-mother's tale of beans and boys in "Jack's Mom," but this poem is an intrusion into an otherwise powerful baring of an irrepressible soul. Enter the Chrysanthemum is one of those rare books of poetry that compels one to read on until the end. I haven't felt that since Hughes' Birthday Letters.

Editors' note: Read Fiona Lam's poems "Chrysanthemum" and "Offering" in Issue #11 of Cha.

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