The poems in Fiona Sze-Lorrain’s The Ruined Elegance resonate with a voice that is both fragile and strong, physical and metaphysical, ancient and contemporary. As such, the collection serves as a sounding board for the powerful silence that echoes through language over the ages and across the continents. A master of musicality and enlightening allusions, Sze-Lorrain has written an English-language collection that is both accessible to a wide audience and rewarding to the closest of readers.
As a French woman of post-colonial Asian heritage, she joins a vein of writers such as Marguerite Duras and Samuel Beckett whose work straddles profound cultural complexities. Educated in America, Sze-Lorrain spent several years in New York before settling back in France where she started publishing poems in English, translating French and contemporary Chinese poetry into English, and American poetry into French. Her work serves as a vital midwife for the greater global understanding that will one day be born from today’s contracting and relaxing tensions between differing religions, cultures, and languages. As such, myriad cultural aesthetics bob up and down throughout The Ruined Elegance, often entwined in the arms of the other, calling into question assumptions of culture and canon.
Sze-Lorrain’s previous two poetry collections, Water the Moon (2010) and My Funeral Gondola (2013), give readers her unique vision of how all aspects of the human experience—from daily life to era-defining events—meaningfully intersect, and her latest collection offers yet another angle of sight from her compound cultural eye. Where Water the Moon explores the fruitful co-mingling of art, music, and literature, My Funeral Gondola looks through the surprisingly capacious lens of events surrounding a single musical score. The Ruined Elegance adjusts this lens to see throughout centuries rather than decades and continents rather than countries. In so doing, Sze-Lorrain illustrates how the ruins of past perfections signify both the loss of something beautiful and the gain of an even greater beauty. It is the tension between this concurrent loss and gain that inspires the poems in The Ruined Elegance and provides the structure for the book: like a tightrope strung through each poem, this taut thematic line leads us from one intersection of oppositional meanings to the next.
The first such semantic crossroad is the title of the book itself. If “Ruined” is read as destroying “Elegance,” then The Ruined Elegance binds the poems together in an utterly graceless wasteland. If, on the other hand, it is read as describing the type of “Elegance,” then it taps into a tradition of heightened appreciation for picturesque decay that dominated nineteenth-century Europe’s writing salons and art studios, and has fascinated writers and artists ever since.
Sze-Lorrain’s style is too subtle to directly depict to a ruin as iconic as Percy Bysshe Shelley’s sonnet, “Ozymandias,” or John Keats’ sonnet, “On Seeing the Elgin Marbles.” Rather, the title poem, “I Wait for the Ruined Elegance” prizes ruin-induced elegance over the ruin itself:
Plum blossoms comb the southern mountain. Maybe
maybe spring. What can the difference
give a bystander? If
only swallows mend the wind, another way to choose—
tree to tree, grievance
by grievance. I watch
the sun turn from a sphere to a palace. Burning,
but not disastrous.
The language, pacing, and spacing of poem is manifestly elegant. The setting evokes a temple ruin buried deep in the remote jungles of the Far East, but no such temple appears. What does appear, though, is an elegance which holds the past and present together in a timeless embrace. It is this elegance that so inspired Shelley and Keats when gazing on ruins in the British Museum, that awes hikers in the remote regions of Tibet, and that draws us—like moths to flame—to Yves Marchand’s and Romain Meffre’s pictures of post-industrial Detroit or Henk Van Rensbergen’s photos that transform decaying, abandoned buildings into beautiful, otherworldly places.
Forcefully following this gentle lyric is a dense prose poem written in a much more urgent voice. “Back from the Aegean Sea” begins:
Oracles die in this folktale. Thinking that I must harness the past, I erase temples and scriptoria, civilizations buried in Persian tombs. Disrobed of their worth, revived in museums. Twice I paid to stand close to the sacred.
Rather than awaiting a feeling of ruined elegance to gracefully befall her as in the prior poem’s blossom-combed mountains, the speaker ruins the elegance herself, erasing the perfect beauty that the artifacts once possessed and revivifying it as ruined elegance, worth money just to see and expressing a picturesque state of ruin that has high aesthetic value.
Taken together, “I Wait for the Ruined Elegance” and “Back from the Aegean Sea” convey inherent contrasts in the roots of Western and Eastern poetic traditions. The Ozymandian trunks of Western literature grew out of narrative epic and drama—often in exotic settings—where Eastern literature descended from Bonsai-like lyric poetry that finds the sublime in serene settings. The Western tradition, however, requires an element of threat to inspire sublime feelings.
The father of this philosophical tradition, Edmund Burke, defined “sublime” for the nineteenth century and beyond as “whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain and danger” in his then-seminal A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origins of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. Where gothic novelists of the era imagined numerous thrilling scenarios (usually involving frightened women, noir-type villains, and decrepit castles) and Romantic poets manifested it in the trope of a man alone in nature, his contemplation of it mirroring its majesty, Sze-Lorrain lifts herself up from the armchair sublime to brave that of real ruination—and her vehicles for this are historical episodes revivified in these locales: the Gulag, Ravensbruck, and Tibet and China during the fifties and the Cultural Revolution.
In “Anna Akhmatova, or the Thoughts She Didn’t Write,” the speaker ghosts into the mind of Akhmatova herself, in a moment when she’s thinking about her son, Lev, who was held in the Gulag as a result of his father’s political resistance:
If Lev could telegraph his dreams from the Gulag
doors, my house had three
his letter began with Mosquito, come. . .
to keep the vigil, I’ll give you mine
Not only does she slip into Akhmatova’s personal voice, but also into her poetic one, writing, as Akhmatova did, in a style that reflects patterns of thought rather than patterns of speech and in a fragmented stream of consciousness that employs emotion rather than narrative to make meaning of seemingly disparate images.
Sze-Lorrain then takes us, two poems later, to Ravensbruck, a female-only concentration camp in WWII. In “Geneviève de Gaulle-Anthonioz Took More Than Fifty Years Before Writing Ravensbruck Down in La Traversée de la nuit,” Sze-Lorrain uses the same lyric style as in the Akhmatova poem to ghost into the voice of de Gaulle-Anthonioz—member of the French Resistance and niece of Charles de Gaulle—this time in the only slightly more distant third-person perspective:
Mind, a shrapnel shell for German figures of speech.
27 372—a five digit indignity.
Non omnis moriar.
Scream. The Polish girl, Bacha?
Bone experiments. Without anesthesia.
They teased muscle fibers out with gloves and a naked eye.
De Gaulle-Anthonioz’ recent induction into the Panthéon Mausoleum in Paris, along with three other members of the French Resistance, marked a historic moment of national unity against the extremism and anti-semitism against which de Gaulle-Anthonioz fought—and against which we’re still, sadly, fighting today.
Tibet, together with China when it was caught in the teeth of the Cultural Revolution, complete the triumvirate of sublime locales. “Dusty Citadel,” for instance, is set in the Tibetan Labrange Monastery, the site of much ethnic violence throughout the twentieth century. The poem’s speaker asks:
What hangs on tiers of prickled wires
to make a raging mind
picture nirvana between their holes,
Shangri-La in each square of air?
Notably, the poem makes reference to Shangri-La—the mystical, harmonious valley in the Himalayas that provides the fictional setting for the British novel Lost Horizon—and not Shambala—the mystical, harmonious valley in the Himalayas that has figured in Tibetan Buddhist teachings for centuries. The reference to literary borrowing blurs the mythic traditions and gives us a glimpse of the unspoken violence when they are transported to contemporary times. Similarly, in the poem “Spring Massacre,” Sze-Lorrain’s strips language and form to its most spare to relate horrors committed there:
Soldiers raped our cousin, over
No, these soldiers were in
Using the same tight control that she uses to unfold picturesque imagery in “The Ruined Elegance,” Sze-Lorrain unfolds the fatal brutalities suffered by an unnamed woman, and does so in horrifyingly slow motion. Placing a caesura after “cousin” forces the reader to linger on the image of the rape; as does the word choice of “over”; as does the stanza break; as does the repetition of “over.” The word choice of “No” then gives the reader a false hope that maybe the cousin wasn’t raped after all— only to dash our hope when the line continues.
Sze-Lorrain employs an opposite but equally effective lyric approach in the poem that follows it, “Mausoleum.” Rather than using caesuras and creating white space with line breaks and stanza breaks, she completely eschews punctuation and stanzaic organization and varies the line lengths very little:
Father unearthed terracotta warriors
before his eyes turned half-blind on the same
day Red Guards scalped his sister’s arms
bundled up with trash bags in a closet
no one found her until the edge of light
As a result, the dense block of text that narrates the murder emphasizes the vertiginous feeling of chaos and confusion. The technical aspects of the poem pair with a stuttering and incomplete narration of the event to create an unsettling reading experience, jostling us out of the safety of an unearthed cache of antiquities and into the terrifying grip of violence. The cruelly misleading line ending, “on the same,” at first suggests “on the same terracotta warriors,” but the continuation of the sentence on the next line in fact leads us into an instance of unimaginable pain too specific to be imagined rather than real: “the same/day Red Guards scalped her sister’s arm.”
Horrific episodes such as these heighten tension throughout the book. Emotionally tethered to this thematic tightrope, we inch our way from one poem through to the next to “Midnight Almanac.” Unlike the melancholy picturesque landscape of “I Wait for the Ruined Elegance,” this poem depicts a melancholy political landscape of the post-Communist era: “The moon, a failed political party. Rain softens at no condition.” Even more powerful are the images that convey the weight of one family’s tragedy without any of the details: “Discarded buses at a traveler’s hour. A truck passed ahead. The stoplight predicted father would return.” Our tightrope tightens near to snapping with the emotional force of these haunting lines and images that provide too much specificity to forget and too few details not to assume the worst. And just at this point, more mundane images ghost into the poem, saving us:
What is buried in the earth grows out of the earth. I see in it a
reminder. Of daily objects—buttons, toilet paper…
The Petrarchan ideal.
A saucer, not a saucer. Quick memory in a coffee stain.
In my bed, spooning pear jam for my lover. Our silk duvet, neither
form nor style. Let me give you all
before sleeping in your palm.
The speaker here favors the things of daily life—buttons, toilet paper, saucer, coffee stain—over the essential thinglessness of immortal life. And symbolically, in her favoring of pear jam over the peach tree, she is choosing to sing of things of this world—wisdom, justice, friendship, and romance—rather than the vague ethereal nature of the next. Akhmatova’s voice ghosts back into the book here—if it ever left—imbuing daily objects with a weight that reminds the speaker of the meaning and cycle of life as much as epic struggles and ruination do.
By the time we reach the end of the third section of the book, we can step off the tightrope and onto the safety of the fourth and final section, with poems grounded in the freedom of art and music rather than the imprisonment of violence and ruin. The semantic roads that cross-crossed throughout the book—life and death, fear and courage, ancient and modern, epic and lyric—finally uncross, giving readers an expansive view of neither a graceless wasteland nor pretty picturesque decay. Consider these lines from “Jardins sous la pluie,” for example:
All things considered, details render rain
free of glory, even more feral
than disfigured fountains
hoping to be illicit yet failing
in their drive.
Like poems throughout the book, this stanza expresses the ineffable complexity of nature and human nature, and the literature that comes from the combination of the two. The central tension in the collection –the necessary and natural coexistence of opposites—not only informs our understanding of Sze-Lorrain’s work as a whole, but is also the means by which we make meaning of our lives and the long stretch of human history that led us to live them.