The Double Nature of Reality
The Ruined Elegance by Fiona Sze-Lorrain (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2016, 64 pp., $19.00).
Fiona Sze-Lorrain’s new book of poems marks a fresh refinement in her art. Her previous two volumes, Water the Moon and My Funeral Gondola, evinced a lyrical intensity more penetrating than mere self-expression, while still being, almost nonchalantly, more revealing of the private soul than many other recent poets’ styles. The Ruined Elegance is even better at refining sensibility, till what is silent and invisible — the Universal Myth of Human Life — can be imagined and appreciated, or at least approached and contemplated.
Sze-Lorrain’s poetics need explaining. Her own words deserve consideration:
When I work ... I concentrate on the intensity. I try to be humane and luminous. I do think of the soul and the sacred. There is a line in a Jewish prayer that speaks to my heart: “A person’s thoughts are his or her own, but their expression belongs to God.” Whether one believes in the redemptive power of writing (or not) is probably another affair. To me, that sentence evokes something of a marvel beyond human grasp in an enduring literary imagination. It humbles me, constantly reminding me that expression is a gift, not a talent, less so an “ability.” It also suggests that a true literary imagination isn’t “selective” — it contains an universal allure. I like this idea. I believe if something is profound, it must also be accessible. When I stay luminous, people, mountains, poems and music find their way to me more naturally. The experience is all quite inexplicable and mysterious, yet at the same time concrete and real — I cherish it that way, and hope to continue keeping the mystery alive.
(“Interview with Fiona Sze-Lorrain,” Bitter Oleander, Autumn 2011)
Sze-Lorrain believes in inspiration, but she also knows she must be ready — what she says is being luminous — in order to receive the wondrous gift of images of externality, the world much greater than the single soul, the world that comes to her if she is worthy. How this happens is a mystery, but Sze-Lorrain possesses certain faith that what is actually universal must be actually accessible to the poet’s best imagination. Careful readers will at once observe that this connection seems to baffle logic. Sze-Lorrain resolves this easily by pointing out the unknown world beyond is something that imagination makes. Presumably, like William Blake, she means imagination sees reality, what might be hidden to both sense and reason, and then utters what the vision is. In the matter of transcendent truth — or what she often calls profundity — authentic poetry includes it all, while self-expression excludes much of it.
The arching theme of Sze-Lorrain’s new book is waiting for “the ruined elegance,” a motif mentioned early and repeated, but not realized until the end, the final poem “Jardin Sous La Pluie.” It is not elegance the poet seeks, not simply grace, but ruined elegance. The first thing this implies is something gone, the ancient past of vanished human life:
Thinking that I must harness the past, I erase temples and scriptoria, civilization buried in Persian tombs. Disrobed of their worth, revived in museums. Twice I paid to stand close to the sacred. I stood on the rim of an emptiness, losing deities no matter how I asked. In an era not mine I couldn’t trust a guide. This was the atmosphere I had been after in different libraries and editions. A compulsion to hold the weight of myths.
(“Back from the Aegean Sea”)
The poet standing next to emptiness, contemplating gods from bygone stories — this appears to be her chosen pose, her sensibility of elegance. And what is elegance but formal style? But then the question, what is ruined style? Does Sze-Lorrain believe these opposites must interact to make reality? And can she name this ruined elegance? She can and does, imagining extremes, but we must listen very carefully to hear the words she whispers in her soul.
It probably is easier to see the two extremes when they are placed together. “Jardins Sous La Pluie” shows us clearly that with all quotidian experiences — ordinary rainfall, for example — “details” are the enemy of “glory.” Sze-Lorrain insists that common facts are wild and stark and dreary, so much that we desire to replace “the first half of nature” with what we consider to be “glamour.” If common details — that is, facts of living — do not satisfy the human soul, what does, what can, but poetry — or painting, music, any form of art? This means, of course, the mind imagining. She says the rain sends gladness to her flesh, but how can she find words to “shape the rain”? Or how can she idealize the rain? Or must its elegance be always ruined? Other artists cause her to despair:
Monet and Debussy kept
rain with discomfort, trying to measure
a quiet too pure
and transparent for humans.
In “Bonnard’s Naked Wife Leaving the Bathtub” Sze-Lorrain identifies the nature of her problem. Following a cursory description of Bonnard’s Intimist nude study she declares, “Here stands a moment in praise of mundane details.” Somewhat strangely, she ignores the fact this artist was a master classicist and made his pictures after ancient styles — in fact, he no doubt valued elegance. But Sze-Lorrain’s opinion is distinctive, and it soon is clear what bothers her:
Like you, I wish for more narratives.
a plot that unravels a grand finale.
But we know imagination
Trusts best in permanence —
Dawn held at a windowsill.
The elegance that Sze-Lorrain finds ruined seems to be important narratives, those found in myths and sometimes histories — all deeds and speeches that should be preserved.
It would be interesting — and exciting — to see Sze-Lorrain, who has achieved such excellence with lyrics, turn her hand to writing storied verse, because she has a sense of narrative inherent in her vast imagination. Take, for instance, “To Survive When It Must” a lyric that describes a cursing voice, and then transforms it with a startling figure, saying that a tear in a page “is a slit / in the book’s tongue.” This metaphor has tragic implications, certainly for ruined elegance:
and phantasmal, its blood
to quell terror. But
the curse echoes
deeper and beyond. The librarian
knows the curse preserves a life,
In times of doubt, it’ll fool
censors. It is mummified, it has eyes.
She hears it day and night,
in the silence of archives.
This might be an image of the poet, Sze-Lorrain’s succinct self-portraiture.