HOW TO BECOME THE GOD OF SMALL THINGS. A green field, dimly lit.

How to Become the God of Small Things
by Fiona Lu
Map Literary, 2023
22 pages
Reviewed by Christina Rossi

Fiona Lu shows How to Become the God of Small Things in her 22-page chapbook of the same name, which won the 2023 Rachel Weztsteon Chapbook Award from William Paterson University. It was published by Map Literary in 2023. In being a poet, Lu presides over a universe of small things—the words and phrases that transmit her meaning; the themes—broad or slight—that hold our attention; and the meaning of each poem, as defined by poet or reader.

I find Lu’s work absorbing, baffling (although less so after a few readings,) instructive (the use of Chinese myth in the poems,) and rewarding.

She is a gifted Prime Mover. This is immediately obvious in the beauty of her images: “[Pomegranate] seeds lining the insides of my breasts,” and “where I fold ghosts into origami cranes.” Then the grosser, impactful pictures: (Guts stare back at me from the tiled floor, grinning…;) and “As your brother draws a blade, unravels the pelts of smaller things.”

Lu crafts striking themes. In “Hunting” she talks about a violent brother, who “tore sparrows into endings that sung, minced rabbits into atlases of light.” He also “stuck his hand into a fishtank and squeezed.”  Lu wonders “what kind of boy sharpens his breaths to knifepoint.” She asks plaintively, “what kind of boy becomes your vice.” Despite the brother’s destruction of small animals, “he always clasps his hands in apology before he feasts,” Lu avers.

“Turing Test” takes its title from an assessment created by British mathematician Alan Turing to see if a computer’s responses could become could become indistinguishable from a human’s. I think the protagonist in the poem is a computer or a machine. She “never felt the vitriol of a mother’s womb.” She meets a girl “behind the factory,… her fingers soft like a violet blooming through scrap metal, roots tangled around stillborn engines.” The narrator has a passionate affair with the factory girl. The poet grills her father about why he thought life was just “bone marrow and unsung mantras. And about sentience: the hole borne into the gut of every wretched youth. Every father left with want in the soles of his shoes. Every child left  pining for transience.”  In the poem, Lu confronts questions like “What is life?” “What is love” “What is human?” and reveals her depth as a poet.

“In Which I Tell You What Happened to Our Last Holy Woman” is a fierce poem. “[T]he people break open her breasts, scrape clean the centuries of pomegranate seeds lining the insides, they chip their teeth on her good shoulder, bite her better name in two.” Lu addresses the “girl” of the poem: “there’s no nicer way to put it: the last goddess you worshipped they ate.” Could this be a comment on our disposable “goddesses,” whether the Kardashians or Melania Trump? We make them, then destroy them, eating them, in the poem’s parlance.

The mother is a central figure in the work. In “In which nezha waits for a taxi in the rain,” (a nezha is the devil incarnate because the “spirit bead” and the “demon bead” of Chinese mythology were switched)  Lu writes:

 

I remembered my bones—there, on my mother’s doorstep,
wrapped in carnival flyers damp with apology. Now,…
I peel back my mother’s eyelids and
find sockets dark as night, twin candles flickering inside. The next
time I see her, she is in the belly of a rainstorm, building temples
out of my bones.

 

I think this is such a fluid, image-filled passage. It winningly comes full circle with “bones.” Then there is the exceptional picture: “wrapped in carnival flyers damp with apology.” The portion about peeling back her mother’s eyelids and finding black sockets with “twin candles flickering inside” is vivid and a little spooky.

In a mother-daughter poem that she interestingly titles “Loneliness,” Lu writes, “there are so many silences between us which go unsaid.” It reeks of alienation between the familial pair. Further, Lu says of the mother, “in the past, she dropped a stone from one country to another and listened for a sound. now, she dreams about untranslating my heart.” As recounted in the poem, the mother dreams of returning her child’s heart to its original language. The child says she dreams about “futures small enough to hide between teeth,” so America is not where the streets are lined with gold for her. Later, Lu asks, “tell me why I only haunt the people I love most.” This to me is the mother.  The poem ends with an interesting commentary on the American experience. Lu does an admirable job on it:

 

my mother is afraid of going outside, she says the stars will flay the hunger out of
her.
one day, I want to be ruined like that:
stupid, grinning,
full of everything.

 

I think Mom is afraid she’ll lose her hunger for the American “more.” Lu says she would like to be “ruined like that: stupid, grinning, full of everything.” I think this is about the dumb, grinning American full of everything that more promises. It’s not a flattering picture, but is heartfelt.

Another poem that discusses the mother-daughter experience is “Portrait of mother as nuwa” (In Chinese myth, nuwa is the mother-goddess that created all of humankind.) The mother is a nurturing woman. Regarding their shared experience, Lu writes:

 

at fifteen, I have already chose a new name for myself—a shiny new
american thing. its edges are too brittle, syllables too sharp
for mother to swallow
without drawing blood.
Further on, Lu says about the mother
stop pretending that I don’t cover my skin so the sun
won’t stain me a deeper shade of yellow

 

I think Fiona Lu is a skilled poet whose talent shows most deeply in fathoming the depths of the fathomless, freighted mother-daughter bond.