(Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015)
I recently visited Nevada’s National Atomic Testing Museum. I expected to be taken back by certain images – the apocalyptic mushroom clouds and obliterated cities – but something else remained with me, too. I was struck by my fellow visitors’ reactions to a life-sized Miss Atomic Bomb poster. One museumgoer commented nostalgically on the pin-up’s timeless beauty, and another described the cardboard cutout as grossly nationalistic propaganda. Their views couldn’t have been more different.
Although Fiona Sze-Lorrain does not directly address atomic testing in her collection, The Ruined Elegance, she does cover World War II, Joseph Stalin, and other related topics. Moreover, this book of poems confronts polarities, ones not so different from the museum guests’ opposing reactions to Miss Atomic. The Ruined Elegance, a smart and sophisticated collection, refuses the comforts of blanket idolization and vilification. It deconstructs other bifurcations, as well.
“Given Silence,” the collection’s opening poem, rejects overt separations and oversimplifications. The piece is composed of nine one-line stanzas, and every other line is italicized, which suggests a dialogue. The poem opens:
Saliva pressed on wax paper
in a china cup, the cracks let me think
a black sorrowful elk
assassinated in its postpartum shock
The alternating lines lend themselves to a conversational atmosphere, yet we aren’t privy to the identity of the speakers. This ambiguity opens the poem. Maybe we’re not merely an observer but a part of the conversation. Here, in these first four lines of the collection, boundaries between actor and audience are deconstructed.
Another example of the blurring of lines can be found in this opening. The elk is not simply an animal. She’s a “sorrowful elk,” one that experiences “postpartum shock.” The animal is personified but in a particularly authentic way. Elk do, of course, give birth, but words such as “assassinated,” “postpartum,” and “sorrowful” are usually reserved for human experiences. This scene manages to be both surreal and truly real. It’s fierce.
“Spring Massacre” might be one of the most striking poems in the book. It begins:
Soldiers raped our cousin, over
No, these soldiers were in
In the first line, we read something horrifying. How could we not vilify these soldiers? Abruptly, however, we are told that the rapists were students. On one hand, this makes the events even more ghastly. The term “students,” however, also suggests a sort of youthfulness or malleability, maybe even a hope for a learned change. Through dramatic line breaks, the poem does not forgive these actions nor does it minimize them. These events are appalling and inexcusable. Nevertheless, the poem also subtly rejects to boil these individuals down to nothing-but-criminals. The poem, like the collection, refuses absolutes like basic villain or iconic hero.
The Ruined Elegance also pulls back the curtain that separates the public and the private. More specifically, in “Few Days Before Christmas,” Sze Lorrain writes, “Kim Jong-il was dead when I woke up and surfed / the net before my husband repeated / his curse” at the filthy pigeons. Here, we quickly clip from the political to the domestic, as the former leader of North Korea figuratively enters the married couple’s home (through the internet). Furthermore, the political figure, one detested by much of the world, has lost his life. He has, in a way, become a victim. Meanwhile, the husband, traditionally a symbol of love and comfort, harbors thoughts of cruelty and harm, wanting the pigeons to “be cooked to no one’s sorrow.” These sharp juxtapositions within a seven-line poem contemplate the external versus internal as well as good versus evil. They do this flawlessly, never inflicting a painful didacticism.
What makes a collection of poetry compelling? Certainly, it takes more than simply binding together a group of excellent poems. Some books, such as H. L. Hix’s American Anger, expertly execute a theme. Others whisper a personal narrative, such as Lee Ann Roripaugh’s Dandarians. Some poetry collection’s wonders are carried by a carefully crafted wax and wane in tempo, like Lisa Ciccarello’s At Night. Each of these are stunning books. The pleasures of Fiona Sze-Lorrain’s The Ruined Elegance, however, are borne from something else. The book spans significant geographic, cultural, and other expanses through a variety of poetic forms, lineated and prose. Largely, The Ruined Elegance is held together by its rejection of the existence of contraries. This thought-provoking book restricts us from disassociations, including the separation of good from bad and vice versa. The Ruined Elegance initiates conversations about the global and local communities that surround us, and I’m not certain what could be more important.
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Heather Lang is the Associate Poetry Editor and Managing Online Editor of The Literary Review.