CUTBANK REVIEWS: Sea Summit: Not in the Heart, but in the Humming

Sea Summit by Yi Lu

Translated by Fiona Sze-Lorrain

Review by Christina Cook

Sea Summit, a collection of poems selected from more than two decades of Yi Lu’s published oeuvre, is the first book-length English translation of this important Chinese poet’s work. Her work is unique among her contemporaries in that it explores the gendered relations between humans and the environment and the complexities of ecosystem that circumscribe them. The new book challenges English-language readers—just as her five previous books challenge Chinese readers—to think about the cultural attitudes and imbalances of power that have brought this ecosystem to the brink of breakdown on both sides of the globe.

Disassociation and unity form the two-sided trope that guides the reader through the intricacies of Yi’s vision. The opening poem, “Early Spring,” wastes no time in establishing the speaker’s sight of disassociated bodies in an otherwise pastoral landscape where cows’

            bowed heads seem unrelated to their tails

            each cow also seems unrelated to itself

            is the grass it eats also unrelated to its stomach

            between their four whisking tails

            a butterfly waltzes over hill and dale

            even the butterfly seems unrelated to itself

The disassociation operates on both the physical level (through disembodiment) and psychological level (through the subjective qualifier “seems”), and the resulting sense of instability is emphasized by the poem’s technical elements: the lack of capitalization and punctuation, combined with a mix of end-stopped and enjambed lines, slow readers down as they endeavor to pick their way through the phrasings. In an absence of grammatically organized sentences, they are left to create unities of meaning where none exist on the page. In this way, the reader’s work enacts that of the speaker, who must unify the seemingly unrelated parts of the cows and of the butterfly to create meaning in her own field of vision.

Creating unities of meaning out of a heady mix of language, prosody, and imagery is part of the pleasure and challenge of reading any poem. However, the particular braid of content and form in Yi’s poems invites her readers to invest even more effort in the unities of meaning they make from the now-disassociated pieces and parts of the polluted ecosystem of human-environment relations.

What complicates this project is the blurring of “human” and “nature” that takes place in female identity. In Western literary, cultural, and religious traditions, women have always been depicted as closer to nature than men, and by virtue of that, inferior to them. In recent years, this ideology has provided a useful lens for Eastern literary and cultural critics such as Yu Jiangxia. Her essay “Biocolonialism: An Ecofeminist Perspective,” addresses a similar need in the East to “[unearth] the common cultural roots of the destruction of nature and the oppression of women.”

Yi’s poems express women’s unique closeness to nature, but use their speaker’s gendered perspective to illustrate the ways in which it empowers women rather than renders them inferior. In her poem “Many Many Mothers,” the blurring between women and nature emanates from the all-powerful maternal bond. The poem opens with the following:

            like millions of motors unleashed undersea

            the sea’s body shakes   its chest heaving

            in a splash of white breast milk

            as if spouting the essence of life to its end

            as if the universe needed to be fed

Likening the sea’s fertile, maternal, nourishing body to “millions of motors unleashed” reveals women as a force of nature that summons more horsepower than the male-dominated domain of culture.

Woman’s intimacy with nature is expressed with particular power and poignance in “A Pregnant Woman Walks in the Fields”:

            her body is too full

            spilling over all the way—

            fat lumps of clouds and flowers


            stream water climbs up her bulky legs

            like replenishing a big lake

The description creates an image of a woman so blended into the natural landscape, it is difficult to tell where one ends and the other begins. Both woman and field are perfectly porous, creating a unity that is tied like a knot in the unseen, unborn child. The strength of this knot is expressed in the couplet that comes later in the poem: “her vast gaze   wipes away obstacles / even the mountain shifts solemnly.” A mother, whether incarnated in a field, person, or sea, is capable of no less than moving mountains. Fathers, however, are a different story.

In the poem “Father in a Basket,” the speaker places several degrees of separation between the father and nature:

            on the phone my sister said

            she and elder sister put Father’s urn

            in a basket

            carried up a mountain   placed

            in a cemetery resembling apartments


            work stress at hand

            pressing my chest

            I imagine the basket


            taking stone steps   around a mountain bend

            back and forth   grass and floral scent

            Father inside   becomes

            a nest of eggs   a jar of spring water   a few blueberries

Far from taking part in a porous meshing with nature, the father is several removes from it. He is a pile of ashes that has been sealed inside an urn that was placed in a basket and then interred in “a cemetery resembling apartments”—a final resting place whose description brings to mind a communist-bloc housing estate. The father is also several removes from the emotions of the speaker, who is preoccupied with work when receiving the telephone call from a sister who relays the event to her. Even thus removed from the scene, the speaker can imagine the mountain path and the scent of grass and flowers which her father, thrice-sealed at the scene itself, cannot.

Being sealed away from nature does not stop the female speaker of the poem “In the Open Field” from finding a way to connect with it. The poem opens with a wind “pushing open a small window in my chest,” and then another wind when she says,

            my well-sealed body   can hardly stay shut

            clouds and butterflies are diving in


            the juncture of meridians

            now honey and dew

            in the alleys of blood flow

            sunlight like a hand comes to and fro


            let’s drive some things far away to a stronger wind

            let the brain turn into a happy nest

            the heart a team of humming flowers

The physical boundaries of skin and bone are no match for the elemental connection between women and nature. Here, the speaker’s open heart finds unity in multiplicity, and nature finds a continual source of pollination in return: an activity in which all global ecologies rest. What sustains life on earth is not the human heart but the humming inside it—and what lends this last line its power is as much the language as the content. Translator Sze-Lorrain unites multiple prosodic techniques—alliteration, sound symbolism, and onomatopoeia—to not just convey, but auditorily enact, the cross-pollination between human mothers and Mother Nature.

Just as the mother-speaker’s humming heart enacts this life-sustaining wholeness “In the Open Field,” her heart—and ours—is moved by a bird’s refusal to comply with the sorrowful dictates of pollution in “A Bird”:

            a bird

            lands on a pile of scrap iron

            jumps from one iron plank to another

            then bounces   to the tip of a thin tilting rod

            like a note

            handling a very large musical instrument


            rust falls   and more

            the bird and the scrap iron   seem

            to laugh aloud


            the cheerful bird

            sees my eyes now

            chirps twice   but asks for no reply


            the bird has actually moved my heart

            astonishing the whole gloomy afternoon

The impish bird enables the speaker—and reader—to see laughter and lightness in the sharp and shattered world. The metaphor that transforms the pile of scrap iron into a musical instrument asserts that the bird quite literally plays the junk pile in the sense of not only playing music, but also playing a trick: the bird here has the upper hand.

 This image of nature taking the toxic detritus of humans so lightly is puzzling. Taking it to mean that nature will prevail against human harms to it or one can still see beauty in polluted world would be overly simplistic: Yi does not package her poems in tidy, pretty messages. Satisfyingly, she resists the urge to resolve the complexities of her vision. It is an urge that a lesser poet would fall prey to, but Yi’s resolve allows her readers to puzzle these complexities out for themselves. This is the solar plexus of her body of work, the power center out of which radiates the reader’s own resolution to think about and, moreover, take action against the degradation of women and the environment: the two most powerful and yet most vulnerable parts of our ecosystem.

About the Author: 

Yi Lu is a theater scenographer who leads a parallel life as a poet. Known for her elegant and distilled lyrical voice, as well as her ecological awareness, her honors include the Hundred Flowers Award for Literature and other distinguished literary prizes from Fujian province. 

About the Translator:

Fiona Sze-Lorrain is a poet, literary translator, editor, and zheng harpist. In addition to translating Chinese and French texts, Sze-Lorrain is the author of three books of poetry in English, The Ruined Elegance (Princeton University Press, 2015), which was a finalist for the Los Angeles Time Book Prize in Poetry and one of Library Journal’s Best Books of poetry, My Funeral Gondola (El Leon Literary Arts, 2013), and Water the Moon (Marick Press, 2009). She lives in Paris.

About the Reviewer:

Christina Cook is the author of A Strange Insomnia (Kelsey Books, 2016), Ricochet (Casa de Cinco Hermanas Press, 2016), and Lake Effect (Finishing Line Press, 2012).