Canyon in the Body by Lan Lan translated by Fiona Sze-Lorrain

In many ways this book is exactly what I expected. It is a collection of beautiful, light, lyric poems, in a very traditional translation that is beautiful, light, lyric and focused on image and meaning and very occasionally sound. If this appeals to you, you will love this book.

For me, though, there wasn’t much beyond a few occasional moments that really grabbed me about it. Lan Lan is clearly a finely attenuated poet, one who puts great care into the construction of her poems as image-based description, focused on nature and love, often using one as metonymy for the other. My very favorite moments in the book came as surprises, where the poet herself is inserted into the description in a startling way:

I saw sparrows skim over the roof
with gurgling sounds
I can grow lush wings
and chase them
I can flower, golden or scarlet
until the first heavy snow
Whoever I see becomes mine:

Things that can cry will survive
I or a band of night rain
wind in the woods and water sobbing

But those moments were few. For the most part the poems are pure image, description, heavily focused on landscape. They on the whole seemed to me a little small, perhaps a little trivial even. But that those were me first thoughts troubled me a little. I wondered, is this a sexist critique? Is this the unexamined expectations of poetry and what is an important subject for poems (i.e. whatever the male gaze decides) determined by the norms of a predominately white male European poetic tradition? The introduction, and one of the blurbs, refers to her as concerned with “domestic” meanings and beauty. Was that somehow prejudicial to my reading?

I don’t have answers. I’d like to believe that my aesthetic preferences are without ethical reproach. But knowing what I do about privilege, and conditioning, I wouldn’t count on it. So I’m left feeling uncomfortable with my apathy towards this book, wondering whether it’s a reflection of valid aesthetic preference or societal conditioning.

One thing I can be sure of, though, is the translation. Not because I read Chinese (I don’t, at all), but because I know how to read translations. It’s essentially unobtrusive, transparent, so to speak, and so tries to efface the translator herself. In this aim, it is extremely successful. There were only things that (I believe unintentionally) drew my attention to the translator. The first was something I noticed right away, that persisted throughout the book, which was the seemingly haphazard use of capitalization and periods. Some lines are capitalized when they are not beginning new sentences, but it doesn’t seem to follow any structural logic. I don’t know if this attempting to preserve something in the original Chinese that isn’t quite conveyed by this English usage, but it consistently drew attention to the English as being not quite normative.

The other was a single passage, in the poem “Now, Untouchable”, which seemed muddy, confused, compared to the general clarity of image throughout. My first thought was that the translator hadn’t quite gotten it.

Shamefully facing a bowl of rice, facing the untouchable
rotten intestines squeeze out wormwood and sobbing
Torrential waves fiercer than the sea are surging under the rubble
enough to destroy a huge rock pressing on my forehead

Overall, though, this is an extremely beautiful book, that will certainly appeal to many readers of contemporary poetry who are looking for a kind of truth and beauty in nature as a reflection of the truth and beauty of humanity.

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