Reviews / September 2010 (Issue 12)

Mao's Ghosts

by Reid Mitchell


Fiona Sze-Lorrain, Water the Moon, Marick Press, 2009. 78 pgs.
Steven Schroeder, A Dim Sum of the Day Before, Ink Brush Press, 2010. 91 pgs.

Born in Singapore, Fiona Sze-Lorrain regards herself now as a Parisian. "Dear Paris," she writes in one poem, "I come to you for salvation." Paris has a tradition of foreign born citizens illustrious in the arts, several of whom Sze-Lorrain celebrates in her collection Water the Moon: Man Ray, Picasso and Dora Maar, Chopin, Samuel Beckett and Gertrude Stein, who said, "America is my country, but Paris is my hometown."

Parisian as she is, however, because of her phenotype, Sze-Lorrain cannot avoid occasional reminders she is also of Asian heritage. For example, in the poem "China," a waiter at the Moon Palace tells her, "Your Eurasian visage matches our décor." Or in the poem we feature in this issue of Cha, "A Talk With Mao Tse-Tung," a Swedish journalist recites Mao's poetry; the Chairman's presence is unavoidable, even years after his death.

"What are slogans, tell me, what/are words and why do they poison/spirits and minds" she demands, and who better for a poet to ask than a man who was both poet and the Great Helmsman? Unlike Yeats, Mao did not have to wonder if his words sent men to their deaths; he knew. Another poem, "A Shoebox Filled With Mao Buttons," succinctly deals with Mao's legacy in the form of inexpensive collectables. "Flip one over, needle enjambed,/hook still knifing, yes, there is blood tinning on your thumb."

The collection is shaped to stretch from Singapore to Paris, from Sze-Lorrain's childhood to the present, beginning with her grandmother cooking mooncakes for young Fiona, to Sze-Lorrain's personal life, primarily in Paris—many quite beautiful poems are about her husband—and then to the aforementioned gallery of famous ex-pats, where Sze-Lorrain stakes her claim to be read as seriously as we do the 20th century modernists. As a modernist, she expects the reader to know who Man Ray and the rest of them are, or to be prepared to study if you want to understand her poems. Her audacity is well-justified.

Though to tell the truth, with her descriptions of grotesque Parisian scenes, she reminds me of Charles Baudelaire as much as she does any other poet. "Platform 15, Gare du Nord," features a very fat man falling off a train:

He must have weighed over three hundred pounds
Soiled trousers, wrinkled leather coat, a singular
ordor that cooked like braised cabbages—

Sze-Lorrain is a sly poet, as well as a learned one. Consider her portrait of her mother meeting her husband, the tough Cantonese woman playacting the rough Cantonese woman:

Silence lost gravity and hit
the floor.
She had put on her best purple cheongsam,
spoke in Cantonese
and smoked a cigar, pretending
nothing had happened.

Or her "Mysticism for a False Beginner," which concludes with a koan—or a pseudo koan suitable for a false beginner:

The answer is like a door.
When you open it, the rain has stopped.

The final poem, "Instructions: No Meeting No World," is filled with good advice. It starts with "Hang a bicycle tire on the door and Duchamp's portrait on toilet walls." I believe, however, the poet is speaking largely to herself:

Leave your roots. Leave your ancestors. Leave
the weight that drains your limbs and takes
away your throat. No life is measured by absence.
All your youth, you tried using words to shape
memories until they danced and balanced on straight
lines. Yet you flee—with a bleeding heart, you flee
all your life along a shadowed curve.

Leave your ancestors if you can. But somehow, the grandmother making mooncakes and shyly touching foreign books, the dead Chairman Mao and even an unalterable craving for congee, keeps ancestors in hot pursuit.

Mao's presence—as well as his absence from contemporary China—is more strongly felt in Steven Schroeder's a dim sum of the day before than it is in Sze-Lorrain's Water the Moon. Schroeder, an American who has taught in China, fills his poems with cats, as well as dogs, and sparrows. a dim sum of the day before opens with the poem "Mao's Ghost Wandering"—a poem about cats.

The poem plays on a three-way pun, the very making of which establishes Schroeder's outsider status. The Chinese word for cat mâo inevitably reminds English speakers learning a few Chinese words of both "meow" and of Mao Zedong [máo zédông]. As Schroeder says, it's a mistake no Chinese speaker would make

... but I do
so often with joy, delighted
that every cat I meet on the street
could be his ghost wondering
how on earth it came to this?

By positioning this poem at the start of the collection, Schroeder ensures that every cat we meet thereafter also represents the Chairman.

A four-way intersection creates the frame for much of Schroeder's work: the streets of modern China, the natural world—this time appearing as a cat, but often as tree roots, or leaves, or rain, or a dog—the legacy of Communism, and the western observer. (His identification of Mao Zedong with every Chinese cat is made more explicit in Schroeder's poem "A Meditation on Mao" in his early book Theory of Cats.)

"How on earth has China come to this?" is one of Schroeder's fundamental questions, as it is for many of us westerners who have taught in China. Despite a poetic tradition that celebrates nature, the most casual visitor to China must see that Chinese urbanization proceeds at a frantic pace. Consider the poem "You Can Smell Roads," which appears in this issue of Cha. It is set in a city "growing/unfamiliar fast," presumably Shenzhen. The newly rich are displacing the traditional dwellers: "Now/oyster fishermen's huts have given way to tents, and you know they will not be here long." The same process is taking place in Quanzhou, where I taught last year. Indeed, Chinese netizens joked that the film Avatar was based on forced evictions and demolition of houses for real estate development so common in China.

But if citizens are not often successful in stopping urbanization, Schroeder shows us that nature often resists the newly built environment. "Concrete cold" draws its moral from the common spectacle of tree roots breaking pavement:

Stones will be reset, broken when
life goes on. And its melody
will always lie in what will never stand
for the concrete cold of a simple grid.

"Written in passing, written in stone" shows us the leaves scattered across the streets and sidewalks by a rain storm:

lines of green interrupt the grid.

In another poem, he concludes, "only death abides perpendiculars."

Given Schroeder's concern with the ways nature resists human domination, the Sichuan Earthquake of 2008, necessarily becomes a symbol not only of life's uncertainty, but of the earth throwing off that domination. As he says in "Counting," "we mistook for solid ground … the earth shell of a rolling ocean."

Throughout a dim sum of the day before, Schroeder leaves implicit the following question: what kind of life do China's citizens endure in these hastily constructed buildings? And if nature resists the concrete grid being laid over the Chinese earth, what will human nature do? Again, the question is left implicit, but it is felt by anyone who reads these poems sensitively.

As the poem "No Words" tells us, "The dogs/who have no more words than I, tell me more/than the people who do." In another poem, a butterfly "is fluent in/what is not said." Or, to return to those cats with which he opened this collection, "most cats here have nothing to say/most say it wisely walking away."

Steven Schroeder constantly reminds us that nature and beauty persist in contemporary China, and that dogs wanders, rats scavenge, cats sit and seem to think and the rain pounds the cityscape. a dimsum of the day before does connect after all to the Chinese tradition of nature poetry. Schroeder may only have been a sojourner in China, but that does not mean he does not love it. In "For the Light," he says

No one goes anywhere for any reason
but for love, drawn
by circles of friends, driven
by circles broken.

There is no place
but this.
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