Fish Bones

February 23, 2010

Gillian Sze

DC Books, 2009

Gillian Sze’s debut collection, Fish Bones, is an eclectic salon of modern ekphrastic poems, ranging from pastoral elegies to the vivid erotic encounter. This collection has garnered a slew of critical praise (it was shortlisted for the QWF McAuslan First Book Prize), yet it remains a rather uneven arrangement of poems, containing those that startle with their aphoristic beauty, along with some cringe-worthy love poems one wishes had been left under a bed in a fuzzy pink diary.

As readers, we take each of Sze’s poems, each moment, and either refuse or accept. Heedless of the outcome, we are grateful for the ride, for the glimpses into the lives she imagines, for the occasional divined flash of brilliance.

Sze’s shortcomings are evident in the several hackneyed poems dotted throughout Fish Bones which, when encountered, leave the reader a bit discouraged. One such example is the very stale I’ll Make the Drinks Tonight:

We were born together a thousand times

when the music from your antique gramophone

crackled over our limbs

Additionally, Sze could benefit from reconsidering her method of titling poems. The Last Time I Saw You; She Has a Lovely Face; Alone on the Other Side of the World. Really? Consider how  a poem like The Kiss, with its succinct and violent imagery, is made altogether commonplace by this uninventive title.

Thankfully, there are enough gems tucked in these pages to keep the reader’s attention. These include the whimsical The Jailer’s Daughter, the pensive and melancholy Forget-Me-Not, and an inventive reinterpretation of a classic Wallace Stevens number.

It is difficult to comment on Fish Bones as a whole; there is no unifying thread carrying  from one poem to the next. Imagine a museum curator assembling  the Botticellis, the Constables, and the Nan Goldin photographs in a single room. As is true of a stroll through an art gallery, some pieces will arrest us for their boldness or honesty, while others we pass by without much of a second thought. If anything, Fish Bones is about forcing ourselves to recognize the imperative of imaginative and careful observation, regardless of whether or not these insights are altogether unique. The final lines of the title poem, Playing Fish Bones, are quite apt here:

The span between refusal and acceptance

shrinks in an instant,

differs only by a fraction.

Certainly, Sze has acuity for describing visual details, and it is this skill which holds the otherwise disparate poems together. Fish Bones is at its best when most attuned to the pictorial nature of ekphrasis, keeping in the realm of the visual. The moments of emotional intimacy too often feel contrived, veering towards melodrama. A poem like The Jailer’s Daughter, a sophisticated, whimsical, yet simple portrait of a woman’s shape and movement (inspired by, one might guess, something along the lines of a Miro painting), has much more impact than the TV-movie feel of Animal Tracks, a meditation on siblings bonding over illness. Ultimately, the best poems in the collection are those which imbue the visual experience with the same curiosity as something felt, those poems which are sensuous before they are sentimental. Reviewed by Michael Lake.


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