Editors’ Corner: Two Summer Reads for the Homesick Immigrant Heart

The covers of Melody Gee's THE DEAD IN DAYLIGHT and Fiona Sze-Lorrain's THE RUINED ELEGANCE
Seeking home amid the ruins: Melody Gee’s THE DEAD IN DAYLIGHT and Fiona Sze-Lorrain’s THE RUINED ELEGANCE

It’s the season of travel. Schools are out, the weather is warm, and all over the country, people are preparing for journeys to faraway locations—vacations to new and unfamiliar destinations, but also often returns to the places that they identify as home. Of course, for the immigrant and the child of diaspora, “home” is an inherently complicated construct, riddled through with ghosts—of war, of imperialism, of other kinds of trauma—and with the specters of displacement and isolation and the feeling of perpetual rootlessness. In this June installation of Editors’ Corner, we’re featuring two recent collections by Asian American poets that explore this fraught relationship to geography, migration, and the notion of home.

Melody Gee’s The Dead in Daylight (Cooper Dillon, 2016), her followup to her debut collection (which we previously reviewed here), parses the map of family geography with finely tuned musicality and a delicate and beautifully precise attention to image. In its pages, the reader drifts through an imaginative pastiche that splices together scenes from the domestic and the natural (from the garden to the living room to the hungry sea that laps at the seams of the collection and consumes the speaker’s mother in the final poem) and moves fluidly between the realms of the living, the dead, and the interstitial territory of memory and dream that lies between. At once origin story and narrative of perpetual departure and return, The Dead in Daylight digs undaunted into the wreckage of generational memory, recalling inherited histories of loss and longing and building around them delicate, earthbound constructions: beautiful, otherworldly houses of paper and bone, mud and salt, ink and flesh, that gather together the scattered geographical detritus of the immigrant lens together under their rooves—motherhood and labor, revolution and famine, rituals of birth and burial, the land and the ghosts that inhabit it. The poet intuits the fertile lyric possibility nestled within the silences and undocumented blips in a familial narrative that reaches across continents and generations, and like her speaker, who returns again and again to the garden, she tenderly plants them in earth, where they put down roots and bloom like the speaker’s asclepia (or milkweed plants, favorite flower of the migratory monarch) in “Of What Next,” planted in the faith that what she has buried will one day “call over / butterflies” (16), a crop of brilliant homecomings alighting at journey’s end.

If Gee’s book grapples with a poetics of excavation by rooting, a burrowing into the earth in search of blood and filament with which to anchor the diasporic body, then Singaporean-French-American poet Fiona Sze-Lorrain’s latest collection, The Ruined Elegance (Princeton, 2015), can be said to point its gaze skyward, engaging in a magpie-like poetics of investigation by assemblage, a searching for new meanings and identities under the vast, universal canopy that hangs above the ruins of language, of history, of justice, of place and identity. The poems in Sze-Lorrain’s collection comprise a deftly curated gallery that takes on images of trauma and war (from a survivor’s account of Ravensbruck to scenes from the Cultural Revolution and from apparently contemporary political prison camps) by overlaying and skillfully collaging them together with ideas and images borrowed from European and Asian cultural touchstones. From the classical musical form of the partita (though not one of Bach’s, the poet is careful to note) to Magritte’s iconic The Son of Man to Joseon brush paintings and translated text borrowed from Chinese poets Zhang Zao and Gu Cheng, Sze-Lorrain carefully builds up layers of meaning and beauty around the rubble of written texts and oral narratives that have been erased by the violence of totalitarianism, the fickleness of memory, and the existential complexity of diasporic identity. She allows the ruins to become a kind of aesthetic in themselves, taking the absences as a kind of new form—startling and intentionally unbeautiful among the threads of the shimmering fabric that she weaves about and beneath them, stitching them together as a practitioner of kintsugi, a Japanese technique in which a shattered vessel is repaired by inlaying gold into the veins created by the cracks and missing pieces, might construct a new type of pot out of something once broken. It is here, in the glinting interstices of these carefully rejoined pieces, that Sze-Lorrain’s migratory speaker makes her home: “I want to honor / the invisible,” she says (5), and later, to “turn this ruined thought / into a poem” (45).

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What books are on your summer reading list this year? We’d love to hear about them! Leave us a comment below or share your best recommendations with us on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram (@LanternReview).

Editors’ Corner: Books We’re Looking Forward to in 2014 (Part 1)

Books We're Looking Forward to in 2014, Part 1It’s the first month of the new year, and so much news about exciting new books has come across our desk of late that we thought we’d put together a couple of roundup posts in order to put some of the titles that we’re most looking forward to reading in the coming year on your radar.  In today’s post (part 1), I’ll be discussing six recently published titles (five full-length books and one chapbook) that have made top priority on my to-read list for 2014. Part 2 (which will follow next week) will focus on forthcoming books that are due out in 2014.

Note: the books discussed below appear alphabetically by author; the order in which they’re listed does not reflect any sort of ranking or order of preference. (We’re equally excited about all of them!)

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The Arbitrary Sign by Desmond Kon Zhicheng-Mingdé (Red Wheelbarrow, 2013)

Desmond Kon is a two-time contributor to LR (his work appears in both issue 1 and issue 5), and both times that we’ve published him, Mia and I had a really hard time choosing just two of the poems he’d sent in each batch. Desmond’s work interests itself in philosophy, visual art, pop culture, and the sounds and textures of language: he is interested in dadaism and in other forms of the avant-garde, and has a unique gift for finding the music in both “high” language (such as academic jargon) and “low” forms of speech—slang, text speak, gossip column patter. The genius of his poems lies in their polyglot nature—the way that he mixes contrasting modes of speech and weaves easily in and out of a variety of languages. His pieces work because there is a delightfully haphazard quality to their approach, a lightness that plays against both the weight of the poems’ scale and subject matter and the deliberate care with which the poet has gathered, built up, and sculpted their many intricate layers of texture and pattern. Desmond, a highly prolific writer, has published multiple chapbooks (both in the US and in his home city-state of Singapore) and has a long list of journal and anthology credits to his name—and for good reason. I’ve no doubt The Arbitrary Sign—a philosophical twist on the form of the classic alphabet book—will be as delightful as the rest of his body of work.

For a sneak peek at The Arbitrary Sign, head on over to Kitaab to read six of the poems that appear in the collection.

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Kala Pani by Monica Mody (1913 Press, 2013)

This is a book I’ve been looking forward to for a long while now. Monica wrote for us as a staff reviewer from 2010 through 2011, and we later had the privilege of getting to publish a poem of hers in issue 4. Her work is deeply invested in myth and parable, and the textures of her writing are rich and sinuously complex—by turns liquid and transparent, and by others, knotty and grotesque. She has an exceptionally keen ear for music and magic, both of which suffuse her work.  I had the pleasure of getting to read and workshop portions of Kala Pani back in 2009. It is a hybrid piece (partway between poetry and prose) that takes up the narrative of a group of world travellers who converge around an ancient tree.  In it, the poet deftly plies together the fibers of what at first appears to be an allegory-like story, only to tease and unspun these threads mid-strand and remake them again (differently) in the next breath. What I admired most about the manuscript when I saw it in workshop was the way in which the tapestry of the piece’s language shatters and shifts at a moment’s notice—like quicksilver. Monica is a brilliant critical thinker, in addition to being a talented poet, and it shows in the deeply intelligent nature of her writing: though she is keen to investigate notions of trauma,  geography, time, race, gender, spirituality, etc., her writing neither preaches endlessly nor holds to an overly simplistic view of the political: rather, she holds questions up to a mirror, testing them on a knife’s edge. She recognizes that the notions of place and identity are inherently fraught with instability, and she both celebrates and problematizes this complexity: the characters of which she writes transform and bleed into one another, metamorphose and cycle back to avatars of themselves, over and over again, in many different ways. It’s been a couple of years since 1913 first announced that it had acquired Kala Pani, and now that the book is finally out, I can’t wait to read the finished product.

Excerpts of Kala Pani can be found at The Volta, the Boston Review, and Lies/Isle.

Continue reading “Editors’ Corner: Books We’re Looking Forward to in 2014 (Part 1)”

Panax Ginseng: “A Possibility Sensitive to Time”

Panax Ginseng is a bi-monthly column by Henry W. Leung exploring linguistic and geographic borders in Asian American literature, especially those with hybrid genres, forms, vernaculars, and visions. The column title suggests the English language’s congenital borrowings and derives from the Greek panax, meaning “all-heal,” together with the Cantonese jansam, meaning “man-root.” This perhaps troubling image of one’s roots as panacea informs the column’s readings.



1. Diptych

Manoa’s recent “Sky Lanterns” issue spotlights “new poetry from China, Formosa, and Beyond.” The issue features contemporary poets organized in order of age: “not as a bow to hierarchy,” writes editor Fiona Sze-Lorrain in her prefatory note, “but to trace a possibility sensitive to time.” From a first glance at the cover, we see a juxtaposition of the old and the new in the grandly staged Soul Stealer, photographs by artists Zeng Han and Yang Changhong. In the diptych’s top half is Mulian Opera #11: costumed figures of an ancient theater tradition, including mythic animal avatars such as the monkey king, who populate a green landscape with a seven-story pagoda obscured by mist. Meanwhile, in the bottom half is World Warcraft #11 (dated a year later): costumed figures of neo-contemporary archetypes, including the princesses, warlocks, and demons familiar to role-playing video gamers, who populate a craggy landscape with a line of skyscrapers obscured by what may be polluted smog. The “possibility sensitive to time” in the photographs is appropriate to this volume because the costumed figures above and below reflect the modulations of culture, place, and society over time—and yet exist as avatars of myth and imagination outside of time. The same might also be said of the figures and expressions of poetry.

The volume opens with Bei Dao’s essay “Ancient Enmity,” which frames our reading with the enmities he claims exist between the poet and the poet’s era, mother tongue, and self. Bei Dao quotes Rilke’s “ancient enmity / between our daily life and the great work,” which also calls to mind Yeats’s choice between “perfection of the life or of the work.” One is invited to read the chronologically arranged poems in this volume with an attention toward how poetry’s relationship or antipathy to the world has changed. An ironic continuity emerges, at once apologia and apology for poetry in the world, as we see in the ending of “Doubt” by Amang:

a certain longevity
poetry and song

Continue reading “Panax Ginseng: “A Possibility Sensitive to Time””

Staff Picks: Holiday Reads 2010

Last year, we asked our staff writers to recommend books that they’d read in the last year and thought were worth passing on.  This year, we’ve decided to continue with this tradition.  In light of that, here are our holiday staff picks for 2010 (poetry, prose and more—yes, we read more than poetry!)

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Race and the Avant-Garde: Experimental and Asian American Poetry Since 1965 | Timothy Yu | Stanford University Press (2009)

Recommended by Mia: “This is one of the key critical texts on my reading list for the holidays.  I’ve only skimmed the first few chapters, but thus far have found Yu’s argument compelling, his analysis rigorous, and his wide-ranging knowledge of Asian American and Language poetry in the United States to be informative to my own work—not to mention useful in historicizing these two movements/moments in contemporary poetry!

From the Tinfish Editors’ Blog: ‘Using a definition of the avant-garde that has less to do with aesthetics than with social groups composed of like-minded artists, Yu argues that Asian American poetry and Language writing formed parallel movements in the 1970s. […] Both presented themselves in opposition to the mainstream; both were marked by questions of form and racial identity. Both meant to create art out of social groups, and reconstitute the social through the reception of their art.'”

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Radiant Silhouette: New & Selected Work 1974-1988 | John Yau | Black Sparrow Press (1989)

Recommended by Mia: “Yau is one of the two major poets that Timothy Yu addresses in Race and the Avant-Garde (Theresa Hak Kyung Cha is the other), so I’ve been reading through his New & Selected Work for an introduction to the thematic and aesthetic scope of his early career.  He’s a fascinating figure in Asian American poetry and, as Yu points out, ‘might best be read as a restoration of the links between politics, form, and race that characterize the avant-garde Asian American poetry of the 1970s [… providing] the first opportunity for most readers to recognize […] the presence of that avant-garde back into the very origins of Asian American writing.'”

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Man on Extremely Small Island | Jason Koo | C&R Press (2009)

Recommended by Iris: “Jason Koo’s style is very different from my own, but this book (his first collection) managed to completely charm me with its quirkiness.  The voice of the book’s primary speaker manifests a world-weary exhaustion that is, on the surface, darkly melancholic and painfully self-deprecating.  He obsesses over his dirty apartment while eating a tuna sandwich, dreams about floundering clumsily through an encounter with Lucy Liu, envisions himself stranded on an island in the middle of an ocean, worrying about the size of his nose.  But beneath the speaker’s (at times endearingly hyperbolic) self-consciousness lies a striking vulnerability and a luminous ability to evoke the fantastic within the mundane: BBQ chip crumbs echo the ‘fine grains / of my slovenliness,’ becoming ‘barbecue pollen,’ and later, ‘orange microbes’ (9); Lucy Liu becomes a motherly goddess figure who guides him through a secret mission, ‘pulling you after her diving into the stage,’ which becomes the arena for an undersea showdown complete with battleships, lingerie models, and harpoons (22) , the island transforms into the kneecap of a giant woman who ‘has no nose. Just a space where mine / can fit’ (77). Part Frank O’Hara, part tragic hero of his own sardonic comic-book series, the speaker’s sense of humor, whimsy, and wonder, as transmitted by Koo’s craft, paint a picture of a world that reinvisions the now-archetypal image behind John Donne’s famous ‘No man is an island’ with simultaneous irreverence and tenderness. ”

Continue reading “Staff Picks: Holiday Reads 2010”


Cha: An Asian Literary Journal | Issue 12 | September 2010

Let’s dive straight in, examining three of the issue’s first poems and their wrestle with words and meanings.

Phill Provance’s interlace poem “St. Petersburg Has Many Churches,” is perhaps the most abstruse, though its diction remains commonplace. The poem’s charm lies not in its form but in its unself-conscious vernacular. Its colloquial voice, inconsistent in a way typical to modern speech, uses contractions here but not there, and lumbers along monosyllabic platforms (many its, thats, and ises). The loftiest word is “ellipticizing,” but this neologism, rather than conjugating the Latinate directly (“ellipsing”), invokes the urban by conjugating gym ellipticals as root. All this results in the naturalization of the poem’s anfractuous form, such that it flows with incidental ease. This is hard to achieve. Provance himself comments that the poem is designed to be accessible despite its layered meanings, which makes it an appropriate gateway poem to the journal. Yet: why is a poem about St. Petersburg, or his second poem remembering lost love, placed as the opening of an “Asian Literary Journal”? The third stanza of “St. Petersburg” describes a vaguely Zen mode of seeing, but the other poem has nothing culturally comparable. We’ll return to this.

Fiona Sze-Lorrain’s “A Talk With Mao Tze-tung,” though also colloquial, achieves a much steadier voice. This poem addresses the quondam Chairman’s mortal absence, because “you are nowhere / until a Swedish journalist recites your poetry / and wonders . . .” Living, and dead, and revived, Mao’s core vitality resides in his words and ideas, which become corporeal by revolutions. Thoughts march, words poison, books are buried. And along the way, vituperation must question itself: “why am I talking to you, dead man?” It seems language persists even when we don’t desire it, and since “history has no last word,” this poem ends in questions, and the talk with Mao must pause until an answer comes alive again.

Kim-An Lieberman’s two poems are among my favorites for their adroitness. “After Ten Years,” a loose-octameter poem, turns list into narrative. The “Because” reiteration chants and expiates, swelling to crescendo; the final line hits the kind of poetic denouement that evokes quiet “hm”s from audiences at readings. In “Harvest,” we begin in miniatures (“single beads, stray buttons, broken twigs”) and end in nature’s enormity. The sound of children’s jubilance masks the tone and the suffocating fish onshore, until the ending when the ominous “sudden true hand” comes forth unveiled. Lieberman distinguishes herself in poetic brevity with truncated phrases like “This is not to sing / a strange-eyed child, some oracular pure . . .” and doesn’t sacrifice clarity for linguistic decoration, or vice versa.

Continue reading “Review: CHA: AN ASIAN LITERARY JOURNAL, ISSUE 12”

The Page Transformed: Fiona Sze-Lorrain on Ekphrasis

Man Ray's "Larmes"
Man Ray's "Larmes"

As we continue our exploration of ekphrastic poetry, poet Fiona Sze-Lorrain, whose first book (Water the Moon) we reviewed last month, graciously answers some questions that we’ve posed to her about the ekphrastic elements of her collection.


LR: How do you envision your work with ekphrasis with respect to the larger arc or project of Water the Moon?

FSL: Ekphrasis is indeed one of the many channels I turn to for building the muscle of my imagination. The Greeks say, “In the beginning was the verb.” How about “In the beginning was the image”? I remember having read — a long time ago — an interview with the French theatre artist, Ariane Mnouchkine, who (probably influenced by the Japanese theatre philosopher and pioneer, Zeami) perceived emotion as coming from recognition, which is an useful perspective for actors. In a way or another, I too define my experience of ekphrasis as emotion coming from recognition… for instance, by recognizing something in paintings that can transform descriptive clues to deceptively personal/emotional landscapes or narrative possibilities. Part of the larger arc of Water the Moon is about dialogues with artistic voices or consciousness that follow me like shadows over time. Steichen, Van Gogh, Dora Maar, Man Ray… these happen to be just some of them whose iconic images play a role in molding my sensibilities since a child.

LR: In “Steichen’s Photographs,” you write “Photos have no verbs . . . / . . .Verbs are those trying not to pose” (58). Indeed, it seems that your ekphrastic engagement with photography in the collection is more immediate in nature than your engagement with other artistic media, like painting — for example, in “Van Gogh is Smiling,” you continually invite a reconstruction of his iconic images, “Let’s imagine fifteen sunflowers” or “Let’s retrace your starry blue night” (51), rather than delivering a direct experiential response to a particular work. In what ways does the camera’s eye provide a different type of visual or interpretive experience than other forms of visual art (e.g. painting, sculpture)?  How did these differences influence your decisions about craft and perspective?

FSL: Perhaps this is just a personal preference. I am married to a man who knows much about the world and craft of photography. By chance and good fortune, I have also crossed paths with the work of a few important photographers of our times. So I tend to feel more intimate with photographs, though paintings, to be honest, always offer me the contemplative space whenever I need it. Photographs — less so. They tend to be more visceral for me, and contain specific social realities that I can more easily identify with or pinpoint. As you can see, the cover image of my new book of poetry, Water the Moon (italics) is also a photograph. (It is entitled “Cortona,” taken by American photographer, Blake Dieter, in Italy). The clock in it is a metaphor of the Moon – in terms of time. I like films tremendously too and sometimes imagine photographs as immortalised snapshots from an unknown film. In general, it is harder for me to be oblique when writing about photographs than about paintings. You do not see something just because it is visible. There must be something else. What is it? I don’t know.

LR: Both “Steichen’s Photographs” and “Larmes” balance deftly on the seam between the perceived and the perceiver — in other words, we are made aware of the strange subjectivities at work when our gaze as readers is directed towards the speaker, whose observations become the subject of the poem as a piece of art, even while she herself is engaged in a process of fixing another artist’s subject in her own gaze. How can ekphrasis be of use to both the poet and the reader of poetry as an exercise in gaze, perspective, and subjectivity?

FSL: Ekphrasis (like any form of writing) is all about distance, because ultimately even if emotion must come from recognition, there comes a distilled point when the lie of the expression becomes evident: the artist, the painting, the poem, the writer, the reader, the reading … all these can never exist in one same space of subjectivity. “Let it not be the medium we question but the man — painter and photographer,” summed up Sadakichi Hartmann in “A Monologue” that was published in Camera Work in 1904, around the time of Steichen’s early photography. If anything, what ekphrasis offers is a bridge between various agendas, intentions and temporalities, based on an unchanging image. This bridge is dynamic — it constructs and deconstructs itself all the time. Besides, no one gaze is identical. I suppose it really is just simply the evocative power of an image that defines what we would call ekphrasis. At least this is what I feel – for now…

To read more about Fiona Sze-Lorrain, please visit her web site.   Water the Moon was released by Marick Press in February 2010 and is available for purchase on their site.

Editors’ Picks: Fiona Sze-Lorrain Interviewed by Retort

Melbourne-Based Retort Magazine

We were recently given a heads’ up about this fascinating interview in Retort Magazine that Singaporean poet Desmond Kon conducted with Fiona Sze-Lorrain (whose book, Water the Moon, we reviewed earlier this year).  [Thanks, D.K., for the link!]

Fiona Sze-Lorrain

Here’s an excerpt (Sze-Lorrain on place and geography in her work):

Places permeate my writing since you may say that I am someone of travels — in exile and displacement, so-called. I’ve traveled, yes, and at times, without a choice, but I am never a tourist. Pierre Nora sees places as sites of memories; I see places as moments and years. I thought that writing about places as memories risks falling into the trap of flat sentimentalism, or a re-invention of the past. Unlike most artists in exile who eschew geographical precision, I look towards the porosity of borders — both physical and temporal — for inspiration. Otherwise, places are no different from identities, and any kind of identity will never fail to imprison souls.

To read the rest of the interview, click here.   Also worth checking out is the latest issue of Cerise Press, a magazine that Sze-Lorrain creates and edits with Karen Rigby and Sally Molini. It’s an intriguing space that beautifully mixes translation, art, and lyric — and is well worth the read.

Review: Fiona Sze-Lorrain’s WATER THE MOON


Water the Moon by Fiona Sze-Lorrain | Marick Press (forthcoming 2010) | $14.95

From the opening poem of her debut collection, Fiona Sze-Lorrain explores both her ancestral and adopted homes from many lenses, including poems that capture the simple moments of a meal or walk down the street as well as poems that embed those moments in the grandeur of history and tradition.  This juxtaposition of the personal with the past serves as a poignant reminder of the ways in which history informs individual identity, yet in “A Talk with Mao Tse-tung” she writes, “Clearly history has no last word” and ends the poem with unanswered questions.  She reminds the reader that the personal also goes beyond the past and that each person has to find her own answers. In “The Sun Temple”, the speaker revisits the historic Sun Temple with her grandfather’s map, ultimately ending with the lines, “I tremble to realize that I can no longer / remember my grandfather – I am merely a tourist.”

Separation and distance resonate in the intimate moments she conveys. Her poems often begin with the specific and concrete, quietly expanding into a deeper reflections on what those moments represent. In “Breakfast, Rue Sainte-Anne”, she begins by describing congee (porridge) with, “Transfixed, I watch how the chef / shreds dried pork / into fine linear strips, drops / half-quarter slices of century egg / into a bowl of steamed rice.” The simple images soon turn into the speaker’s own relationship with the meal (“Today, I still have no idea / how to eat porridge with chopsticks”), and then into an imagined conversation with her father, in which he complains that both the taste and price of the food are nothing compared to “the rickshaw streets of his old Shanghai.” In this way, she goes beyond the initial preparation of congee to access memories and evoke longing.

Sze-Lorrain’s speaker is not afraid to share her vulnerability, expressing her fears and uncertainties with dark images and sharp, precise language. The poem “Moon” opens with symbolizes fear in my culture, / a dark force that hunts / until you cower.” These lines launch directly off the title of the poem, immediately plunging the reader into the piece. The poem “Invisible Eye” opens with “Fog / chalks the skeletons / of houses. I pry / open / doors of dusk.” The short lines propel the reader forward, paralleling the speaker’s hurried walk home while being followed.

Continue reading “Review: Fiona Sze-Lorrain’s WATER THE MOON”