A product of Montreal’s vibrant literary community, Gillian Sze’s first published collection of poetry, Fish Bones, is a strong and assured contribution to the Canadian poetry scene and identifies Sze as a poet to watch in the future. Acknowledging a dynamic relationship with the visual art-object and having as its central conceit a random stroll through a museum, the ekphrastic verse of Fish Bones occupies the fraught space between artistic pursuit and life, and it is a sophisticated exploration of the power of the aesthetic and the erotic to re-imagine the self.
The collection opens disarmingly with “Cantaloupe” (1), a poem that adumbrates Sze’s concern throughout with the synthesis of the prosaic and the poignant. Aesthetic production for Sze is accidental, a serendipitous happenstance. Art comes from nowhere and anywhere. Witness the fruit growing where it should not, “striving” nevertheless “for sweetness,” and then held out as a timorous offering to an anonymous addressee:
It just showed up by the rose bushes
like a mistake, some bastard child
that sprouted from an insatiable seed
thrown in with the compost.
The artistic self-consciousness of “Cantaloupe” gives way rapidly to, but also communicates with, the erotic collision of bodies coming together in “The Last Time I Saw You” (3):
Can we make it as innocent as we’d like,
and suddenly we were naked,
pulled together by a trick law,
our bodies abiding by this new set of rules.
A singular and unforeseeable erotic connection suspends the predictability of the rule of law and enforces a disconcerting re-calibration of habitual thinking. Without a pre-given calculus, affective and perceptual alternatives must be sought: “The mole on the left side of your loins, / a baffling landmark.” And then: “How foolish of me / to try to define a horizon.”
These two poems found early in the collection illustrate the mature and compelling thematic concerns of the volume. Sze is always keen to counterpoint the aesthetic and the erotic, and the two modes for her seem at once complementary and antagonistic. The paradox is well-illustrated by “Tending Ice Gardens” (16):
Memory is monochrome,
playing film stills
on his bare erection.
The physical urgency of the moment and the release it anticipates is eternally held in abeyance by a detached contemplation of the motionless image. The inexorable excitations of the body and the isolated moment of artistic representation combine in a curious suspension – a suspension alive with possibility but courting frustration:
and how wicked Memory plays the tip,
shell shock white,
so furious and suffocating.
The paradoxical relationship between the erotic and the aesthetic is just one facet of a larger problem Sze confronts in her poetry: how does art, whatever the medium, reach the living body? How does it preserve and communicate its heat, rhythm, and flows? So Sze returns often to the body in stasis, of which we find a stirring image in “To John Lyman and the Portrait of His Father” (32):
I think, chiseled stone.
I think, a firm no.
I think of my father’s straight gaze
out the living room window,
cutting off the breath of the boy
talking with me at the end of the driveway.
A portrait of a father impassive as a rock-face exhumes recollections of the speaker’s own father – forbidding, dictatorial, and frustratingly beyond reach: “Your father sat there reading when you painted him. / My father stopped when he was only two pages in.” Though the father is untouched by his daughter’s poetry, the speaker’s encounter with Lyman’s portrait resonates with enough intensity that both stony figures can be imagined, at last, to breathe: “Did they both sigh, I wonder, / when they found out who their children really were?”
This is just one stroll through the poems in this collection; Gillian Sze has ensured that many others are possible. Intent on formulating new ways of seeing, thinking, and feeling, Fish Bones is an exciting and promising debut for a significant new voice.
Manish Sharma has been teaching English literature at Concordia University in Montreal for five years.