[REVIEW] “Fine Lines of Meteorology: Lan Lan’s Canyon in the Body” by Ash Dean

{Written by Ash Dean, this review is part of Issue 46 of Cha.} {Return to Cha Review of Books and Films.}

Lan Lan (author), Fiona Sze-Lorrain (translator), Canyon in the Body, Zephyr Press, 2014. 208 pgs.

Carrying, unzipping, stuffing, rezipping, Stowing—

I am passing through security at Shanghai’s Hong Qiao airport for a flight to Xi’an, distracted by the ever-changing configurations of barriers and means of controlling people. In the confusion I arrive at the x-ray gate with Lan Lan’s book still in hand. The officer is an older man with kind eyes, who waves me through the metal detector anyway. I hand him the book as he passes the wand over my body—he stops suddenly and holds the book up to his face, opening to a page and pointing with his whole hand as he reads the Mandarin out loud. He nods his head; the corners of his mouth turn up, slight and dignified. He turns to another poem and does the same and I nod back. I say to him in Mandarin—You can have it. It is a gift. He hesitates then hands the book back to me with both hands. 

Lan Lan was born in Yantai, a village in Shandong province, and grew up in rural Shandong and Henan province. She was close to her grandmother, a talented storyteller, as her family moved from village to village. Lan Lan’s early adulthood was spent in rugged labor as a factory worker. She gained attention in 1990 with the publication of her collection Life with a Smile 《含笑终生》.

The bilingual collection Canyon in the Body 《身體裡的峽谷》introduces Lan Lan’s work to an English-speaking audience. Each poem appears in Chinese with its translation on the opposite page. The introduction, itself an important essay on lyricism by translator Fiona Sze-Lorrain, is entitled “I Speak to Rivers and Silence.” In addition to introducing Lan Lan’s work, it also discusses the challenge of crafting lyric poems in an era in which they might be deemed mere sentimentality. With that understanding the reader moves through the collection attending to the lyrical voice as it observes, contemplates, loves, celebrates, and mourns.

I first held the book in my hands at a time I was in need. I was living, writing, and teaching in Suzhou. Living in the old district of the city, I wanted a guide to my new environment, a guide which would also engage my own perplexity as a poet. Lan Lan gazes through a lens that is both scientific and spiritual, crafting lyrics that sing unflinchingly in the face of perplexity.

In one poem, “Please Discuss Happiness with Me,” Lan Lan offers an invitation to a conversation without an ending, a conversation that appears simple but which, with subtle observations, hints at a shared perplexity. Her request might just be the most necessary human request that we make. It begins: 

In these elegant lines Lan Lan wrestles with weight and weightlessness, contained and container. She interrogates the physical world with a voice at once rigorous and passionate. While addressing these concerns, Lan Lan also masterfully responds to some of the most confounding scientific discussions of today. In “The Physics of Love”, she writes:

It is rare for a poet to approach serious subject matter so capably and at the same time craft such musically resonant lines. Lan Lan’s work sings, and translator Fiona Sze-Lorrain renders that music in her English translations. The language is subtle, but the atmospheres are precise. As Sze-Lorrain describes in her introduction, Lan Lan is a poet of “warm temperatures.” This description is a testament to the vivid atmospheres that Lan Lan creates in her poems. Sitting with the pieces for a long time I became aware of the worlds that exist both inside and outside of the lines: a precision of architecture that creates both an internal weather and a spaciousness that the lines carve from lived experiences. “Inside Eternity…” demonstrates Lan Lan’s fine lines of meteorology:

At times there is a polyphony in Lan Lan’s poems. Re-readings will reveal subtle changes in voice. A more direct polyphony is exhibited in a piece like “You Are”:

The reader is often asked to listen.  Even if (perhaps especially if) it is silence that we are asked to attend to—as in “What Is More Is Silence”:

In her shorter poems Lan Lan negotiates the difficult territory of reconciling an emotional, physical, and meditative world, as in “Untitled”:

The word kin or kinship recurs in the poems. It is an important word for a poet who has intense relationships to nature, to figures in her childhood village, and to her own family history. Kin is translated from 亲人 or 亲眷, and it is an excellent translation. In my conversations I have always felt that 亲 carried with it a sense of the beloved, an even deeper river than family. Where Lan Lan references herself most directly, it is as a mother. In “Mother” she writes: 

Another sense of kinship in Lan Lan’s work is in her depiction of workers. These include cobblers, carpenters, and blacksmiths. These figures might be archaic in the West. Having taken backpacks, coats, and pants, for repair to a man sitting on the street with a hand-operated sewing machine, even in urban China, the hands and backs of these figures ring true in my mind. This kinship is evident in“Carpenter in the Thick of Wood Shavings…” which begins:

Then in the final stanza Lan Lan compares her difficult emotional line-work to the cut of the plow and the growth of new wheat:

Despite the subtlety of her lines, Lan Lan’s work is often grounded by bold, memorable statements. “Chestnut Tree in the Wind” begins: ‘To meet you while alive / is enough for me.’ And concludes: ‘I want you to bring me out alive / from the abyss of time’.

Lan Lan is a poet of deep attention. She is contemplative and mindful, while at the same time her earth-lorn voice dares us to live in the world. In “Short Lines”she even offers—’I’ll be a way you reach for the world[.]’

Poetry is where we put our most important language. We should keep it nearby. Canyon in the Body is a book worth keeping near. Reading poems is perhaps the closest we can come to standing inside someone’s soul.Lan Lan’s work offers a soulful, yet hard wrought kinship. As she concludes “Please Discuss Happiness with Me,” she invites us once again to

The word that I struggle with when it comes to poems is that inevitable verb: read. I don’t like the notion of consuming poems. I’d very much like to believe that I can inhabit a poem, that the language travels with me in the book and in my mind, so that I still return to those poems, even when the book is not with me. The poems in Canyon in the Body remain with me. Their lines alter me, like light, or weight, or love—as Lan Lan writes in “Change”:

Lan Lan has received many of China’s highest literary awards, but she is not among the few contemporary Chinese poets recognised internationally. While English translations of her work have appeared in a few journals and anthologies, Canyon in the Body is her first poetry collection in English. Lan Lan’s work is important and deserving of a wider readership. I’d like to express gratitude to Fiona Sze-Lorrain for her translations, and to the Jintian Foundation, Zephyr Press, and The Chinese University Press for publishing this collection.

How to cite: Dean, Ash. “Fine Lines of Meteorology: Lan Lan’s Canyon in the Body.” Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, 9 Oct. 2020, chajournal.blog/2020/10/09/canyon/.

Ash Dean is a father, poet and educator. He grew up in Ferguson, Missouri, and currently lives in Ansan, South Korea. He is a graduate of the Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing programme at the City University of Hong Kong. His work has appeared in Amethyst, Cha, Drunken Boat, Foreign, Gravel, Ma La, Mason’s Road, Red Coyote, Re:locations, Soul-Lit, Speechless, and in the anthology Afterness: Literature from the New Transnational AsiaHe is the author of Cardiography (Finishing Line Press). 

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