CUTBANK REVIEWS: "The Ruined Elegance" by Fiona Sze-Lorrain

The Ruined Elegance by Fiona Sze-Lorrain
Reviewed by John W. W. Zeiser

Fiona Sze-Lorrain’s new collection of poems, The Ruined Elegance, is a lyricist’s journey through history, travel, art, and music. One in which Sze-Lorrain proposes to speak for those who cannot. In an early poem in the collection, “I Wait for the Ruined Elegance,” she writes, “I want to honor / the invisible.” Perhaps she means this literally for there are dozens of historical characters who inhabit the poems: Anna Akhmatova, Gu Cheng, Pushkin, and a zither player in a Chinese labor camp to name just a few. But beyond these touchstones of modernist high art, there lies a more basic invisibility, the ghostly lag between a world of words and one of experience.

Often, Sze-Lorrain acknowledges earnestly the poet’s limited control, such as in “Towering,” where she writes, “I can’t speak for accidents elsewhere, / only forms, lines—”. Yet at other times she is playful, letting the reader in on the joke of poetry. In closing the short poem “Transparent,” which consists of two independent clauses connected by several phrases, she remarks, “To turn this ruined thought / into a poem, / I took out four words.” How facile, and also fun, it is when ordinary speech breaks into the poetic?

Nevertheless, she always grapples with these issues in an assured voice. At times it is spare but never insubstantial; the poems flit just beyond easy comprehension. Her play with syntax and punctuation creates a clever, enjoyable confusion, that demands we read and reread the poems to see exactly where it is she is going.  In “Mausoleum,” for example, she does away with punctuation completely and sends us dashing across lines and through the lives of some of her “invisible” characters:

Father unearthed terracotta warriors
before his eyes turned half-blind on the same
day Red Guards scalped his sister’s arms

These lines contain a great deal of information, but the absence of punctuation provides little chance to process it all. She attempts to reign us back in with more expected line endings, but even these give way under a lack of directions to the score; we rush on through even more information:

bundled up with trash bags in a closet
no one found her until the edge of light
children were scavenging for walking sticks and rice
they found a broken vase and a stubborn
plant they said her eyes stuck out
like orange buns that bite they said his hair
turned white overnight

What ends up anchoring us is her repetition of “they said,” which allows us to begin parsing out the stops. We must work backward, our ears forcing convention back onto something incomplete. It is then when we are allowed to linger over her poetic specificity “until the edge of light” or “her eyes stuck out / like orange buns that bite”.

Much of the first three-quarters of the collection is built like this. Syntax or grammar bent or twisted just enough, the characters and scenes vital, the poet’s preoccupations addressed in interesting ways. However, the final part, titled “Caught in Defiance,” threatens to bog down the reader in pieces overly full of reference.

Sze-Lorrain makes references throughout the collection, but in this part, which consists mainly of ekphrasis, the references pile up too high; they feel detached from the intimacy that preceded it. The poems feel, as she writes earlier about seeing ruins collected in a museum, “Disrobed of their worth.” They bring the idea of “curation” into a collection that up until this point seemed resisted.

This is not to say that reference should be stripped from poetry. Far from it, there is often something valuable in being exposed to what has set someone else off, but in the case of the fourth section, it ends up coming off as extraneous or as if you’ve been sent gliding over a surface of hyperlinks.

Ekphrasis in the twenty-first century walks a tightrope that is perhaps too unstable now that the world wide web is everyone’s personal annotator. It sits there as a distraction, calls to you when something appears in a poem that isn’t immediately clear. In “Bonnard’s Naked Wife Leaving the Bathtub” or “Three Moves Clockwise,” a poem on André Kertész’s seminal photograph La Fourchette for example, only after seeing images of the pieces in question did I feel able to appreciate the totality of the poems. Yet many of them could work just as well if we remained ignorant of their subjects.

Perhaps this is a failure of mine, or of the distracted time in which we live. However, again and again I returned to the other sections of the collection and immediately felt warmly disconnected from the need for every bit of information present, even when Sze-Lorrain directly references the act of information gathering as she does in “A Few Days Before Christmas”:

Kim-Jong Il was dead when I woke up and surfed
the net before my husband repeated
his curse that pigeons defecating on the balcony

should be cooked to no one’s sorrow

The Ruined Elegance is one of the more maddeningly interesting collections of poetry I have come across recently and there is much more at play than I could hope to address in such a limited space. Its extremely polished surface, the poet’s well-readness, sometimes threatens to undo the mystery of what she calls “the sheer / glow of life.” But sustained reading rewards us with the experience of grappling with something both simple and broken alongside the poet. At her best, Sze-Lorrain rewards the reader with language born of curiosity and raises further questions in the most satisfying ways. With no easy resolutions, she instead offers to plunge us into contradictions, where “Healing comes / slow, the wreckage perennial,” reminding us playfully, but with a knowing wink, that artifice is a poor conductor of feeling.


About the Author:
Fiona Sze-Lorrain is a poet, editor, literary translator, and zheng harpist. Her new book of poetry, The Ruined Elegance, is published by Princeton University Press in the Princeton Series of Contemporary Poets. She is also the author of two previous poetry collections, My Funeral Gondola and Water the Moon, as well as several translations of Chinese contemporary poets and two books from English to French (most recently the work of Mark Strand). A co-founding editor of Cerise Press, she has written for venues related to fashion journalism, music and art criticism, and dramaturgy. Her CD, In One Take, was released in 2010. She lives in France, grows orchids, and works as an editor.

About the Reviewer:
John W. W. Zeiser is a poet, journalist, and coffee roaster’s apprentice. He lives in Los Angeles. You may follow him @jwwz.