Book Review: Canyon in the Body by Lan Lan
Canyon in the Body
Poems by Lan Lan
Translated by Fiona Sze-Lorrain
Zephyr Press, April 2014
$15.00; 208pp [Bilingual Chinese/English]
Reviewed by John W.W. Zeiser
The Jintian poetry series, named after the groundbreaking Chinese literary journal, commissions English translations of some of China’s foremost contemporary poets. For many, the Jintian collections represent their first in English, and one such debutant is Lan Lan, whose Canyon in the Body provides her innovative style a much needed introduction to a global audience. Lyric, elliptical, and deeply felt, Lan Lan’s poetry bridges the divide between the muddy backroads and cold, bare nights of rural China and its gleaming centers of glass and steel which appear destined to consume this old life.
Now known in China as one of its foremost lyric poets, Lan Lan’s trajectory from rural life in Henan and Shandong to the literary highs of Beijing was not a simple one. Born in 1967, she grew up beyond reach of the harshest blows of the Cultural Revolution, going to school in a cowshed with desks made of sun-dried mud. Her first poems were published at age 14 in the prestigious Wuhan literary journal, Fragrant Grass. Lan Lan’s literary life seemed set to take off.
But her early success was followed by years of poor health which prevented her from attending university. Although she never lost sight of poetry as her calling, she had to take work where she could find it. She was a crane operator, a packer in a factory, and eventually as a technical writer. These experiences on the bottom rungs of a country plowing forward crop up again and again. Small villages full of laborers and peasants she encountered daily populate her poems. In “Please Discuss Happiness with Me”, she writes, “an old shepherd smacks his lips loudly / on a wine cup” while in “Siesta”:
Noon. The village slumps into
…………a bright late night.
A draft brushes the spine of a napping man
a mother lies on a kang mat nursing her child
her fragrant body aligning with the earth.
But it’s not just this slice of small village life that makes Lan Lan’s poetry so compelling. Her elusiveness and uncertainty also thrill. Lines are in constant contradiction, her images the stuff of dreams: “My loosened hand holds you tight / The door is shut for you to pass.” There is both recognition and something that escapes our grasp here.
This fragility ends up being a strength. Lan Lan does not shy from self-criticism or doubt. In the beautiful, fragmentary “A Few Grains of Sand” she tells us:
Sometimes I just can’t understand my steamed bun
my rice and the dust on these bookshelves.
I kneel. My ego bends.
Poet and musician Fiona Sze-Lorrain, who has translated several collections for the Jintian series, does not avoid this elusive quality, instead rendering Lan Lan’s sometimes Delphic observations into a dreamlike English. Poems fall apart and come together, rise then quietly end. Eventually all we have is the sonic quality of her lines, singular moments leaving us only with quotidian riddles, the fragments of a kind of China far from the prying eye.
John W. W. Zeiser is a freelance writer and editor, and sometimes coffee apprentice in Los Angeles. His criticism and journalism about art and literature and his poetry have appeared in print and online. Follow him @jwwz.