Shaking the Past Awake: A Review of Gillian Sze’s Peeling Rambutan and Sandy Pool’s Undark: An Oratorio

by Ryan Pratt

Ryan Pratt lives in Hamilton, Ontario. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Lemon Hound, CV2, Quiddity, and (parenthetical), among others. His poem “Vulture Bay” was nominated for a 2014 Pushcart Prize.

Peeling Rambutan
Gaspereau Press
47 Church Avenue
Kentville, NS B4N 2M7

2014, 80 pp, $19.95, ISBN: 9781554471331

Undark: An Oratorio
Nightwood Editions
P.O. Box 1779
Gibsons, BC V0N 1V0

2012, 80pp, $18.95, ISBN: 9780889712737


Historically, the act of writing is valued as a means of recording the past. A recent example of this is the discovery that Neanderthals dabbled in cave drawings. At a press conference celebrating the find, anthropologists presented proofs regarding the sketches’ age and deliberate nature but offered no conjecture on any particular meaning. Despite the 300,000 year divide, shouldn’t those slender carvings still bear some resonance? Isn’t the past worth interpreting? The trouble with perceiving time as its own precise language is that time’s linear ticking cannot pause, reverse, or in any way oblige the way we create, question, and revise memories. Historians can keep counting forward, but in their wake, time transforms the past, making it phenomenal, precious, or unfamiliar. Even a grocery list begins to accumulate interest if left in the pocket long enough. And in Gillian Sze’s Peeling Rambutan, the afterglow of past generations is resuscitated into a pilgrimage for identity and place.

Grouping Sze’s preoccupations into the phrase “past generations” often feels like an understatement, not only because her cultural longings reach back thousands of years but also because their memory continues to wield influence in her present. “The first words in Chinese were written on oracle bones and tortoise shells,” Sze writes in “East is the Sun Behind a Tree,” a prose poem that spins Chinese astrology, almanac findings, and adages like combination wheels on a vault. Nestled between nuggets such as “river water doesn’t bother the water in the well” and “the Chinese character for good is a woman with a child” are bits of detached personal trivia, such as “my father’s first boarding home in Winnipeg was off Jubilee near the train yard.” Because Sze refuses to reconcile the divide between herself, a first generation Canadian, and her familial histories, the mystic proverbs she sources in concert with her parents’ culture shock creates a deliberate clash. With this displacement now rooted, Peeling Rambutan’s voyage to the past begins in earnest:

Benison

You come to me in mid-bite. A slice of peach at the tongue.
In your hands is a red envelope stuffed with folded Malaysian
banknotes. Beneath your silver gaze, you murmur lowercase
blessings. On the stove, succulent lily bulbs are tossed into the
simmer. The tender lotus roots bob at the surface, peering up
with their many eyes. Everyone will rejoice in the morning
when the crickets quiet and the hollyhocks practise scales. Out
the window, tea flowers scatter to the ground and you will
repeat for anyone to hear, The kitchen is a place of good fortune.

“Benison” presents both the origins of Sze’s trip to Malaysia and a snapshot of the unique household she’s leaving: an Asian bubble sustained by immigrants within Montreal’s Euro-Canadian compromise. Though harmonious, Sze’s everyday is haunted by disciplined recipes, garden practices, and stories of parental sacrifice that kick up the dust of foreign soil. “Tell me again our various forms of leaving,” is one of the desired stories Sze begs to experience in “Come,” but the spectrum of departures in Peeling Rambutan makes her request ambiguous. Is she rehearsing the tale of her father’s settling in Winnipeg, retold in “Strawberry Picking (1972),” or is she anticipating her own departure, vowing in “Peregrination” to “return on foot, count each pace, make certain the latitude”? Like the woman in “Harvest” who tucks generations of family keepsakes into her basket, Sze’s collecting of artifacts and anecdotes has approached the point of burden, making her arrival in Malaysia convincingly disorientating:

Arriving

Here can’t be found on a map: just a small, negligible space
near Bahau, teeming with hot spells and folds of green. A
dragonfly lands on my leg. A drownful brilliance of wings.
Pots of baby oil palm trees line the driveway. Rambutans
are bundled with string and laid out on newspaper. Inside,
windows take up most of the space. The sun erupts and
irradiates the floor.

Although Peeling Rambutan, which details the journey of a first generation Canadian discovering her family’s homeland, could easily have become a reductive immigrant narrative, it’s to Sze’s credit that she so skillfully evades those trappings. She is successful in part because such a simplistic explanation surveys a perspective that she doesn’t accommodate. Instead, Sze shares each sensory and transformative exchange from the depth of her own lens. These are communiqués, poetic in their attention to image and texture, but organized in lines that break as if at the edge of a postcard. The bonding process between author and audience is further compounded by the travelogue quality of these prose poems, the nomadic intimacy with which they radiate, and a relatable sense of wonder that’ll appeal to many readers.

“Though harmonious, Sze’s everyday is haunted by disciplined recipes, garden practices, and stories of parental sacrifice that kick up the dust of foreign soil.”

Though the narrative is accessible, the lack of any earth-shaking revelation will sit better with some armchair travellers than others. The yearning in Peeling Rambutan’s first half is so pervasive, the suspense of travel so palpable, that only an uncovered secret in Sze’s family tree or a missed connecting flight might have kept the book’s tension from dissolving as it does. If any such obstacles did occur during the trip, they don’t divert the author’s attention. Rather, in its cathartic leap to Kuala Lumpur and its subsequent skips through Hong Kong, Guangzhou, Yongchun, and Amoy, Peeling Rambutan clears a lot of fog surrounding Sze’s perception of identity.

“He Asks, Where Are You From?”

A: I am from five seconds ago. I am from a few pages back.
I am from this door I just closed and from the street below.
Eighty-percent of what I say is from A to Z; the rest is just
pictures. But if you want to talk about the beginning, I
suppose I am made from scratch. I am from the horse’s
mouth. I am from pillar to post. When someone asked me if I
were from there, I said: Me, I’m from here. And he called me the
daughter of the soil so I guess, from ground up, I am from
mud and earth; I am from lime and loam. I am from time to
time and from all sides. From now on, hear me when I say
that I was once from hence, from thence, from whence. Now I
am hither, thither, whither.

Note the absence of either family or ethnicity in the above poem. Those traced borders are further marginalized in “A Foreign Meeting” as Sze enlists sfumato—the painting technique used to blend outlines—to describe her encounter with a Russian merchant. Noting features that distinguish the Russian’s “sun-dial face” from Sze’s “visage of rounded out foothills,” the author recognizes ethnicity as migratory. These soft yet satisfying revelations are eager to remind readers (and anthropologists, certainly) that the past, however irretrievable, can restore perspective in the present moment.


Liberation is also at the heart of Sandy Pool’s excavation, although the grim casualties of her subject matter can only be salvaged in tribute. Written as an oratorio—a musical composition that features different perspectives in solo and choir—Undark mines the sinister history of the United States Radium Corporation through a poetic collage of witnesses. This company, best known as the workplace of the Radium Girls, knowingly encouraged its employees to work with the radioactive paint solution Undark in order to provide glowing watch dials for the military. The tragedy represents both a black eye for American ambition and a landmark case for the rights of workers. “Place becomes myth. Facts arrive bent out of shape,” Sze writes about the manipulating effects of time, and that same, obscuring dust is what Pool wants to wipe clean nearly one hundred years after the Radium Girls were licking poison-tipped paintbrushes. This story deserves a place in our collective memory.

Using the framework of the oratorio, Pool stealthily immerses the reader in two competing narratives: Undark’s glowing promise as laid out in several direct advertisements and humanizing portraits of the real-life people who dreamed of making their livelihoods from it. Early poems resonate with excitement; for example, an ongoing, untitled poem presents the women both literally and metaphorically aglow while dreaming of soldiers on work breaks. Later, “Sabin (i)” reveals the inventor of Undark’s excesses:

I dip wrists to
elbow; seize the mercurial

obsession of moths. My face
eats radium, becomes blooms

becomes stars, becomes birds, all
wings beating at once. Time,

I could hardly name her.

And therein lies the tension: that the promise of happiness and wealth imbuing these characterizations is also the greatest peril. Fascination and grim foreboding are interchangeable in the gothic monochrome Pool envisions as the radium draws even the reader’s eye (which, armed with hindsight, should know better) from a landscape of soot and cobblestone. Charting a timeline that sees desirability transform into brand recognition (through poems “1910,” “1912,” and “1916”) just as ambition withdraws into deception (“Sabin [ii]”), Undark’s cautionary tale doesn’t stray thematically from the Hollywood wheelhouse.

In a dark hallway, a woman
takes her medicine. She turns

to the mirror, passes out. Here is her
body, elegantly tired. Stomach

full of flashlights. There’s something
I’ve been meaning to tell you about time:

isn’t much. Still,
you say, you will have

everything. Atom active dust,
emanations. Nothing a quick gin

can’t cure. In the dark you went on.
Six hours, seven. Thirteen

blood transfusions. Enough.

Ultimately, it isn’t the far-reaching fatalism that unites these narratives, but the weaving of perspective and time period that crafts such a chilling atmosphere. Although Pool herself is not featured in the “Dramatis Personae” that prefaces Undark, she oversees a creative juxtaposition of sightlines that cross the deceased victims and perpetrators with the likes of Sappho, the poet, and Hatshepsut, the fifth pharaoh of ancient Egypt. However eclectic, this cast doesn’t assuage the deteriorating situation so much as draw out the undercurrents of gender and power.

“Fascination and grim foreboding are interchangeable in the gothic monochrome Pool envisions.”

Sapphic influences dot otherwise blank pages with sparse notions of femininity, and in “1458 B.C.,” these fragments seem to channel Hatshepsut, the first known female ruler in history. Subtle to the point of vaporous, these asides permit a subconscious drift into the dimly lit annals of recognized female power and foreshadow the lasting legacy of the Radium Girls.

Undark tends to sway between two modes of writing: an imagined autobiography of Sabin and the Radium Girls—presented in couplets—and a variety of different voices whispered in exploratory forms that resemble erasure poetry. Recognizing namesakes via a poem’s structural makeup—without relying on the prompting of titles—offers the reader a unique learning curve that gives these voices more distinction and intimacy. But visual aids alone cannot smooth the breadth and blending of perspectives. In the case of italicized texts running beneath solid lines like footnotes, the anonymity becomes confusing:

Please, stop. Your silhouette. Cut it out. Scapula. Accusatory
trees. Stop. No leaves rosy-cheeked, glittering teeth, so be it. Here
is my hand. Enough. Once I loved everything, patron saint of
inconveniences; light moving across the table, dull-eyed, feverish
pitch. Dear one: I’ve said nothing.

Frozen in a state of remorse, the voice may in fact be co-authored on behalf of all victims, united in the absence of body and self. Vague patches in the narrative collage are isolated and, one suspects, intentional as if fostering the reader’s misgivings in advance of the book’s unflinching second act, titled Half-Light. Although she continues to balance the United States Radium Corporation’s trickery, juxtaposing the crumbling lives of its employees between poetic ad-space for Undark (“1917” and “1921”), Pool streamlines her chronology to tackle the Radium Girls’ historic lawsuit and death march. The factory inspections and subsequent trial are obscured by failing light as protagonists Sabin and the nameless, female workers face a demise that’ll soon negate any comforts a long-awaited settlement might bring. Even the transient steps of Sappho and Hatshepsut, who visit the bedridden women with otherworldly reassurances, seem to find their stride among the near dead.

Death as relief from the injustices of inequality is as close as Undark gets to reconciliation. The book’s most chilling poem, “Nox, New Jersey; 1998,” suggests this analysis via one timeless witness who might be a guise for Pool herself.

Skeletal lace, the larynx.
Worms undoubtedly disturbed

by the echolocation. Women
are speaking. To have lived

is not enough. They have to
reverberate like elbows

poking through undergrowth.
The rate of pulses rising

to terminal buzz. Women
like whale music, singing

under the newly mowed lawn:
lick tick lick tick lick tick.

Taking place approximately 70 years after the court settlement, this graveyard visit may as well be open casket as far as its unswerving view of decay is concerned. For Pool, there are no silver linings; the implementation of an occupational disease labour law is null and void. And yet, Undark doesn’t dig up the past to wallow in nihilism. Much like Sze, whose exploration into ancestry resulted in a more rounded understanding of her present, Pool lays bare one ugly chapter in a capitalist structure that—as with Bangladesh’s Joe Fresh Garment Factory collapse—continues to thrive on inequality. The journeys these authors take and the ways they parse distant source material couldn’t be more different; Peeling Rambutan considers vistas and otherness from a personal perspective while Undark recreates a Greek Tragedy of little known historical accounts. But both excursions are trying to find meaning—some kinship beyond their immediate environments—by reinterpreting the supposed permanence of etchings left behind.

 


Ryan Pratt lives in Hamilton, Ontario. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Lemon Hound, CV2, Quiddity, and (parenthetical), among others. His poem “Vulture Bay” was nominated for a 2014 Pushcart Prize.

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