Editors Laura Ritland and Michael Prior discuss Gillian Sze's most recent collection of poetry, Peeling Rambutan.
Gaspereau Press, 2014
Page Count: 80 pp
Laura Ritland: Peeling Rambutan features a speaker’s journey to trace a generational past. It treks across Malaysia and China in the footsteps of three generations of relatives—the speaker’s parents’, grandparents’, and great-grandparents’—through Fujian, Muar, Johor, Hong Kong, weaving together a rich assortment of forms and content—personal memory, family history, travelogue, folk medicine and myth, to name a few. It struck me that Sze’s central questions in this collection seem to revolve around how the “I” comes into relationship with a geography and history—both cultural and familial. Despite, or perhaps through, the fractures created by time, distance, and lost family connections, how can she recreate a sense of her meaningful relationship to an inherited cultural past? Or, to put it in Sze’s geographical terms, what does it mean for her to be “here,” in Asia, as a Canadian born to immigrant parents? “Here can’t be found on a map,” the speaker says in “Arriving” (p.19). For this speaker, locating her cultural identity isn’t as straightforward as pinpointing a few villages on a piece of paper; it seems there’s a creative struggle to even find an appropriate process or method to undertake this journey.
Michael Prior: The relationship between self and place is undeniably central for Sze in this collection, which expands upon her previous explorations of the self in relation to art in Fish Bones, (DC Books, 2009) and the self in relation to narrative and confessional modes in The Anatomy of Clay ( ECW Press, 2011). The “I” in these poems is almost always conjoined to the “you”—the latter being a slippery pronoun that stands in for various family members, where the specific antecedent is rarely made clear. The distance between the “I” and the “you” in these poems is key to Sze’s poetics: both the speaker and addressee need the other to exist, and, as such, there is always a tension between what the “I” knows about the “you” and what will never be known, due to cultural, temporal, and geographic distance, the “somewhere / between” that Sze’s speaker is often passing through (24).
This distance reminds me of Louise Gluck’s observation about the “power of ruins"—the incomplete or unsaid in art. For Gluck, such ruins are powerful because we can imagine them as whole but only experience them as fragmented. In an analogous way, Sze’s speaker must navigate the “ruins” inherent in her own personal cultural history—that is, the divide between her familial narrative as comprehended in her imagination and the fragmented, real-life experiences that she accumulates while travelling and recounting anecdotes passed down by parents and grandparents. As Sze’s speaker in “Arriving” notes, “Place becomes myth. Facts arrive bent out of shape… I didn’t know I would find myself here between your parentheses” (29).
How does Sze grapple with these issues: the experience of home as, at times, fragmented and foreign, the divide between the speaker’s “I” and the addressees’ “you”? I think part of the answer lies in the formal choices Sze makes throughout the book. Out of the fifty-two poems in the collection, over half are prose poems, and rhetorically, many depend on anaphora and other variations of repetition. Surprisingly, even with such insistent devices, many of the poems feel quiet, subtle in their movement towards a striking image or realization—dependent upon accumulations of images and sensations, rather than bold assertions. Perhaps you can speak more to the rhetorical and formal choices Sze makes throughout the collection? Why prose poems? Why anaphora? How do such choices function in Sze’s exploration of cultural identity, familial history, and the self that must simultaneously inhabit such diverse times and places?
LR: Definitely, the form of these poems are crucial to Sze’s exploration and recovery of a generational history. I especially like your concept of “accumulation”; it’s such an apt way to describe how the prose poems in particular gather snippets of the past—often in discrete, paratactical sentences—into an amorphous whole. The opening poem, “East is the Sun Behind the Tree” is a beautiful demonstration—a collage of folk sayings, superstitious adages, the history of the Chinese language, the speaker’s parental heritage, her birth, the preparation of traditional recipes and her development into womanhood. Each sparse sentence relies on both glancing similarities of content and parallelism in their clausal structures to create a sense of connection between distinct parts:
An old saying: if you never reach the Great Wall, you’re not a real man. If a bird relieves itself on your head, eat a bowl of noodles before entering your home. … The Chinese character for good is a woman with a child. A newborn cried in the next room and someone whimpered back to life. My grandfather took off decades before I was born. Spring bamboo shoots after the rain. A father, I once read, is a necessary evil. (9)
I want to use the word “bricolage” to describe Sze’s process here—a sculpture created from a felicitous assortment of found objects. Yet, Sze seems much more deliberate in choosing and assembling her materials; through the sentences’ juxtaposition and placement in the paragraph, we get a sense of a narrative progression, a genesis story, starting from the very origins of language and ending with the speaker’s development into maturity. To me, the variations in formal repetition—parallelism, anaphora, and so on—seem to mark the rhythms of a recurring cultural past, or at least each parts’ belonging to a common “culture,” one identity, the prose poem.
Interestingly, I think the effect does seem to “mute” or “quiet” any assertive or dominant voice in the poem. The tone of the speaker in this and other poems is musing, gentle. Comic or disruptive tension seems to be produced through surprises in juxtaposition—of images, statements—rather than direct claims about the subject matter. What might be the effect or reason for this tonal choice? Or more generally, how would you describe Sze’s tonal range throughout the collection and how might this serve the collection’s content?
MP: I like your reading of “East is the Sun Behind the Tree,” I think you’ve managed to aptly articulate the way(s) the poem is working; “bricolage” is an insightful way to describe the process. As for the collection’s tonal range, I would say that the poems, while cycling through different structural conceits and devices, tend to be similar in tone: wistful and patient, underlain by moments of loss and acceptance. This isn’t to say that Sze’s book feels flat—not at all! —but rather that Sze has a found a central speaker and a voice that are best suited to reclaiming and delivering her material—intergenerational memories, cultural errata, folk remedies—and speaking them anew.
There are variations in tone, of course, and I would argue that one of the most salient tonal shifts in the collection falls between the prose poems, in which the speaker is given more room to interpret and meditate, and the other shorter lyrics, in which the speaker’s voice is often sublimated into description. Take the poems “Panorama” (40) and “Garage Band” (41) which follow each other in sequence in the book.
In “Panorama,” the speaker “grasp[s] at small details” in order to psychologically situate herself in her surroundings. Most of the poem comprises list of images: a woman “arranges a bathmat,” buildings “dribble shadows,” and “the living room floor is ashen from daily incense” (40). This catalogue of details seems simultaneously comforting and othering for the speaker, an ambiguity reflected in the verb “grasp” and the poem’s brief final sentence: “I hover above the offing.” “Offing” can mean both the part of the sea that can be seen from shore, as well as the near or immediate future, and Sze rightly refuses to provide the reader with any further clarification—“Offing,” then, gestures towards the aspects of cultural and familial identity that continually recede before the speaker into literal and metaphorical distances, things only able to be seen or “grasped” in part from wherever she stands.
In “Garage Band,” a group of local musicians rehearse outdoors and the same sense of uncertainty present in “Panorama” is conveyed, but only through reportage and description; accordingly, the already quiet tone is made even quieter by the simple language and few images, and the speaker’s voice all but disappears. However, certain details, such as the use of spatial markers like “outdoors,” and “indoors” to move the reader between the images of the women who “fret over what to prepare / and pack for next day’s lunch” and the conductor who “stands to face his players” hints at another ambiguous intersection of place and self: where does the speaker stand so that she can see both outside and in? And what has led her to that particular perspective?
LR: Yes, perhaps “speaker” would be better dubbed “reporter” or “cartographer” in those descriptive poems. There’s an earnest attempt to “catalogue” each detail, to parse a foreign environment into literal definition. And yet, as you’ve pointed out, a sense of uncanny mystery escapes the speaker’s attempts to establish a fixed perspective: “Five-century-old buildings dribble shadows,” “Someone paints a tiger in one breath” (40). Yes, the metaphorical play makes the surrounding environment fluid, just as the speaker’s relationship to place “hovers” just beyond certainty and familiarity.
So, this brings me back to asking: what does it mean to “know” one’s history and one’s place in history? Evidently this is the question Peeling Rambutan opens for us, and leaves open. But I’d like to hazard a proposition that poems like “Eating Fruit” suggest cultural knowledge continues to flow along very visceral and somehow intuitive embodied practises. “In my mother’s language, if one does not have a taste for a food, one does not know it, as in to comprehend, or have the knowledge of how to eat,” the speaker states (34). In tasting rambutan, and knowing the cultural “how-to” for peeling this fruit, the speaker seems to see a possibility of intrinsic connection to her history. In a similar way, the other “How To” poems of this collection (“How to Treat Minor Cuts,” “How to Treat Arthritis,” “How to Cut a Cabbage,” “How to Kill a Cockroach”) indicate a traditional corpus of knowledge, a way of being, of physically enacting the past in present time. If we practise these embodied traditions, we “carry on,” or “inherit” a way of knowing the past.
The funny thing is, it’s not clear if the speaker comfortably embraces the traditions that she’s gathered here. The “How To” poems often strike me as humorously eccentric when compared to our modern know-how (crab shell powder for arthritis, anyone?). As well, there’s a suggestion that the speaker doesn’t fully understand what she’s tasting when she consumes rambutan and dragonfruit: “But a brailled slice tasted subtle as melon, as if its flavour dimmed at the close of my lips” (34). Still reaching for similes to describe the sensory experience, the speaker seems to find the “moment” or “act” of cultural inheritance (i.e.: tasting), somewhat anticlimactic, or at least continually elusive. What do you make of that line?
M: I think you’re right to latch on to that simile as indicative of something central to the concerns of the poem, and the book overall. Not only does the simile pair the known (the melon) with the unknown (the dragonfruit), but it also cleverly juxtaposes present and past: the melons that have been eaten and the rambutan being eaten, whose taste must be expressed as recalling something else, before familiarity eventually colours it as unique. The line becomes even more striking when it is considered together with the preceding sentence: “And dragon fruit, chemical-pink shone with tiny black seeds. But a brailled slice tasted melon…” (34). The reader is moved in quick succession from the lush visual “chemical pink” to descriptors of taste and touch; and the inclusion of the adjective “brailled” seems to almost preclude any sense of sight by evoking the raised bumps of the dragonfruit’s seeds as a way of “reading” the fruit’s meaning while being in some sense metaphorically blind.
In an interview with Miel Press, Sze states
I suppose my first draft was terrible because I was trying too hard to answer something. The book as it is now doesn’t. And I like it better this way. What do we do with all this history anyway?
This stuck with me: I appreciate her honesty, her lack of any parochial designs upon the reader. And I think it might have some bearing, in a roundabout way, on your observation that in many of these poems the speaker’s moment of cultural inheritance is “anticlimactic, continually elusive.” I would agree that Sze is implying as much: such moments that we would hope to be catalytic are often anticlimactic. In a way similar to Sze’s observation about her own first draft, Peeling Rambutan questions our tendency to expect certain cultural experiences to “answer something” without understanding that any definite answer is no answer, while also poignantly revelling in the context that allows such experiences to arise.
LR: Yes, the wonder of the “taste,” the moment of bafflement. Like the best poets, Sze puts experience first before interpretation.