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Poetry Canadian

Intimate Distances

by (author) Fiona Tinwei Lam

Nightwood Editions
Initial publish date
Oct 2002
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Oct 2002
    List Price

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A stunning first book from one of the Chinese-Canadian community's most insightful and grippingly honest young voices, Intimate Distances is a deep exploration of the vicissitudes of interpersonal connection and family relationships. Lam writes poignantly and vividly about her background: her father's early death during her childhood, the end of marriage, the gradual loss of her mother to Alzheimer's and, most recently, childbirth.

About the author

Fiona Tinwei Lam is a Scottish-born, Vancouver-based writer whose work has appeared in literary magazines across the country, as well as in the Globe & Mail, and anthologies in Canada, the US and Hong
Kong. Her work has also been featured as part of B.C.'s Poetry in Transit program. Her book of poetry, Intimate Distances (Nightwood 2002), was a finalist for the City of Vancouver Book Award. Twice short-listed for the Event literary non-fiction contest, she is a co-editor of and contributor to the anthology of personal essays, Double Lives: Writing and Motherhood (McGill-Queens University Press, 2008). Her work will also be appearing in Best Canadian Poetry 2010 (Tightrope Books, 2010), edited by Lorna Crozier. Her most recent collection of poetry, Enter the Chrysanthemum (Caitlin, 2009), depicts the journey into single parenthood, exploring themes of family, love and loss. She is a former lawyer.

Fiona Tinwei Lam's profile page


  • Short-listed, City of Vancouver Book Prize

Excerpt: Intimate Distances (by (author) Fiona Tinwei Lam)


After English school, we took the bus three days a week
to a Chinese church basement and a teacher
who looked like Chairman Mao with a perm.

Dreaming of TV, we sat at tables
with our textbooks open to rhymes
about cows and sheep going up mountains,
the shepherds who looked for them,
good students who arrived early to school
while mothers made meals and fathers worked.

Each lesson, the teacher conducted
our choir of fingers, new words
poked, brushed and sliced into the air--
the three drops of water,
flat lines like ladder rungs,
lines straight down with slight flicks to the left,
or tapered tails, swept in or out.

We learned how a mouth is a square
with a hollow inside; two trees make a forest;
the sun and the moon side by side
can be bright as a mind; peace
is a woman under the roof of a home;
how man stands in the centre
of both fire and sky.


these geometric days, bounded
by brushcut grass

amputated maples
lean lopsided into a sky
incised by wire grids,
nets for ephemeral

a satellite platter
funnels a particled world
into a glowing cube

we huddle before it,
avid for evidence
of life outside our
intricate caves

Editorial Reviews

REVIEW: Intimate Distances

Lam explores larger metaphors of both chronological and emotional distance in a series of well-crafted poems.

Much of the book appears to be autobiographical, although Lam takes on different voices and points of view, which provides a nicely varied reading. The writer is interested in narrative, but also has a firm handle on sensual details, as in the opening piece, "Prelude": "I carry everything / in my throat / behind a tender keyhole / veiled by skin / [...] Touch it. The voice / underneath flesh, / the breath / underneath voice, / underneath words / burrowed in bone."

Her strongest poems deal with family history. In these, Lam has presented a familiarity with the details of her parents' lives, as well as a strangeness, that is fresh and interesting. "Conception" paints a vivid picture of the couple, who are both doctors and yet maintain discomfort with both sexual and emotional intimacy. "A Doctor's Wife" presents her mother's transition from working professional to traditional mother: "In Canada, with her old Singer, she sewed blue curtains / for his windows, long lines of stitches / like the sutures she'd sewn on women's bellies. / At dinner, she carved our roasts along the bone / with scalpel precision."

Lam purports that certain distances can never be bridged. In "Father's Day," she writes of visiting her father's grave at the same time as other families: "Mourners stand like us, limp-armed, / waiting beside gravestones / for a meaning that nudges our corners / but never comes in." This theme is what gives much of the first four sections of the book their strength. Moving through an adult life, the author also includes a series of slightly surreal poems that deal with a bad marriage; in "Ring," for example, she writes, "You tell yourself / this ring is / with their tight, wet grip / that crushed feet into lotuses / unlike ribbed walls of bone / fashioning spine, womb, breath / or the relentless / slide into another's name." The last section of the book is more optimistic (with pieces on friendship and motherhood) but also less compelling than poems in the previous sections, driven as they are by powerful stories and visceral details.

Review in the <i>Canadian Book Review Annual</i>

"The poems are explosive -- the family in shards, which the book patiently pieces together. The combination is fascinating. I learned something too: that the mystery of this remarkable family (and possibly of all families) is that each birth, each repetition with a difference, is the rebirth of the whole."
-Roo Borson

Roo Borson

"Lam's voice has a mature, cured quality that is devoid of pretension. She communicates intensity without overstatement, and you can feel the proximity between your life and her words. If I were to have a hyphenated string of adjectives to describe me, I doubt I'd share any terms with Fiona Tinwei Lam. At the same time, I feel remarkably comfortable with her poetry. This book gets a respectful grunt of approval from me, and I have a strange feeling that getting into her poetry now may give you bragging rights later."
-The Ubyssey

The Ubyssey

". . .an overriding sensation of balancing light and dark, of a voice not only finding its place in form, but of testing the limits of painful and intimate territory with candidness and poise. In subject matter, the family reigns supreme. Poems to a grandmother, mother and siblings are standard fare in first collections, but Lam moves beyond simple tributes and accusations to carve her versions with all the scalpel precision [Rita] Wong extols. In "Doctor's Widow" we see a marriage Lam characterizes as an experiment in airlessness; in "The Hyphenated," "Father's Day," and "Learning Chinese," the schizophrenia of cultural assimilation: "We learned how a mouth is a square/with a hollow inside; two trees make a forest;/ the sun and the moon side by side/ can be bright as a mind; peace/ is a woman under the roof of a home." Delving into questions of identity and aging, Lam constructs a cyclical narrative, with characters that appear in the negative only to reappear later demanding understanding: "Then, the flesh withered and soft/ as an old quilt. Fine skin loose/ around a body becoming/ unfamiliar to itself ("Maternal Archaeology"). This deft manipulation is what energizes Lam's work, yet it is when she ventures into the raw territory of the narrator's own relationships and marriage that a real understanding of life's ironies surface. Histories repeat themselves, and at her most powerful Lam resurrects a potent contemplation of familial mistakes, now revisited. . . Intimate Distances is a homage to relationships in all their passion and dysfunctionality. I look forward to the future bringing more of this writer's work."
-Shannon Cowan
Arc Magazine

Arc Magazine

"Here is a journey made with a keen-eyed guide through almost unbearable territories of love. I was caught up by how much story this journey holds, the tension of wondering how it might end, but Fiona Lam takes us lightly over "the barbed wire artfully/ braided into the hedges" to the relief (may I give this much away?) of a place "where everything tight releases its grip/ and breathes." So did I -- I turned right around and started reading again, for the pleasure of the craft and the intimacy of the journey."
-Kate Braid

Kate Braid

"Fiona Tinwei Lam deals with the question of societal roles and how to play them . . . You go with her on a search for appropriate rituals to mark the sudden beauty and pain of family life. The poems talk about togetherness as they pound each other apart . . . You realize that this is where Lam does her best writing: in the domestic space, the constriction of marriage, the sensuous beauty of parenting and its attendant frustrations. You see the emotional strength required just to get through the poetic day."
-Jacqueline Turner
The Georgia Straight, January 2-9, 2003

The Georgia Straight

"Lam, a Vancouverite born in Scotland, has been appearing in journals, but this is her first book. It's one to be savoured. Her approachable and sometimes spine-shivering lyrics zero in on the turning points in the story of one Chinese-Canadian family, her own. Using simple language about complex events and emotions, Lam shows how childhood is often more a benefit to the parental observers than to the children, and that this fact hopscotches along from one generation to the next."
-George Fetherling, Vancouver Sun

Vancouver Sun, Saturday, Dec. 21, 2002

"Fiona Lam's poems explore the contours of love, pain, and tenderness "with scalpel precision." Here, both mournful witness and exuberant renewal prove the heart's endurance in the face of grief. Lam takes the reader through the cycles of death and life with a fine sensitivity, an intense passion, and a resolute courage. In his "surrender/ to radiance" Lam taps into hidden reservoirs of emotional strength that lead us to regeneration."
-Rita Wong

Rita Wong

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