Canyon in the Body is the first book-length English translation of the award-winning Chinese poet Lan Lan’s work. Compiled from Lan Lan’s multiple books of poetry and translated by Fiona Sze-Lorrain, this collection showcases what Sze-Lorrain describes as the poet’s trademark “lyricism, austerity, luminosity, and moral sensibilities.”
Written over the course of two decades, from 1990-2010, the poems in the compilation by turn embrace and reject the marginalized female identity as seen through a complex interrelation of gendered landscapes. Sze-Lorrain’s attentive translation retains the grammatical liberties and subtle but strong voice of the original that have together contributed to Lan Lan’s reputation as an influential Chinese lyrical poet.
Her quietly powerful lyricism peaks throughout the collection, and nowhere more than in the poem “Reality.” Here we see the dispersion of time and judgement—two concepts typically thought to be the very underpinnings of reality—in the poem’s opening: “No day, no night./No goodness. And no evil.” This dualistic yin-yang reality is absorbed by an eternally fertile feminine landscape. It ends: “In the land that never lies fallow/only a woman with a radiant basket/silently sows seeds.” This silent image is powered, and the woman in it empowered, by a basket that generates its own seemingly infinite light.
Such images of light drift through the collection, even in poems that, at first glance, depict only darkness, such as “Unfinished Voyage.” The poem opens:
. . . Midnight. A line of words howls
dashing out of a dark tunnel. A blue signal lamp
flashes. A train drags its umbilical cord
across the bridge, beneath sleepers
my hollow chest can’t stop shaking. It resists
the bow of a fallen sky, flattens, and expands
—you know, Iam always this way, wavering
to get up late at night, take a sip of water
and sit down.
Despite being set in a “dark tunnel” at “midnight,” the passage describes the bright birth of a line of poetry, emptying the chest of the speaker who uttered it while her family sleeps. The poem goes on to shuffle scenes of her writing (“I am always this way. Staring forever at the screen/A line of words jumps out of the dark.”) with domestic scenes (“carrying vegetables/pushing open the door. . . children shriek with joy/rushing to hug my legs,” “I carry a rice bowl,” “drying diapers flutter.”) The shuffled-together scenes and surreal manner of their presentation assert that there is no mother/wife/homemaker vs. poet duality, no boundary between the two. Lan Lan’s subversion of the patriarchal boundaries imposed on women’s roles and very identities speaks not only to the current Chinese culture, but rather extends more broadly to cultures around the world and through the centuries.
Other poems throughout the collection express the ultimate futility of patriarchal control over female fertility—in both the literal and figurative sense. “I Am Other Things” is perhaps the most powerful of these poems, the most delicate and indelicate. Because it is short, and relies on its every word to knit together its meaning, I’ll quote it in full:
I am the fruit of my flowers.
I am the frost and snow after my spring and summer.
I am the aging woman and her past youth
in all its beauty.I am other thingsI am the book I once read
the wall I leaned on pen and comb
am a mother’s breast and a baby’s mouth
am a leaf rotting after a storm
—the black mud
Lan Lan evokes a wholly feminine landscape, one which would be no less complete with “a leaf rotting” or “black mud” than it would be with “the fruit of my flowers.” The “I” in the poem speaks not only for herself, and not only for women in China, but for women everywhere. The poem asserts that physical, intellectual, and creative fertility of women cannot be limited by patriarchies: a powerful assertion stated ever so subtly in the poem. Take, for instance, Lan Lan’s use of punctuation and syntax that Sze-Lorrain carries pitch-perfectly into the translation: The first three sentences are assertive I-statements that end with periods. The opening line, a short staccato, is followed by two lines that gradually grow in syntactic complexity, fooling the reader into feeling less of her urgency. After a slow-paced white-space pause, she makes another staccato I-statement: “I am other things.” However, “other things,” unlike the quintessentially feminine “fruit of my flowers,” is evasive, and the sentence lacks a period. In fact, periods disappear altogether in the poem, and the syntax increasingly blurs as the lines become more elliptical: a white space replaces the sixth line’s semantic and grammatical connection, the subject “I” drops out of the poem starting in the next line, and a dash replaces the subject and verb in the final line.
One might call this collection of poems evidence of lyrical poetry at its finest or political poetry at its finest. However, Lan Lan’s, and Sze-Lorrain’s, evasive and eminently creative use of language and punctuation helps the book dodge ultimate categorization—in much the same way that the speaker in the poems defies being identified in a traditional, or even non-traditional way. It is poetry that complies without being compliant; subverts without being subversive. It is poetry written by a Chinese woman and translated into a Parisian woman who writes English. In mirroring the cultural complexities of our world, it is poetry that must, especially now, be read.
Canyon in the Body
by Lan Lan, translated by Fiona Sze-Lorrain
Zephyr Press & The Chinese University Press of Hong Kong, 2014