Sea Summit, by Yi Lu (trans. Fiona Sze-Lorrain). Minneapolis, Minnesota: Milkweed Editions, November 2015. 215 Pages. $18.00, paper.
It’s always important to read outside your boundaries, to encounter diversity of thought, and to broaden your literary horizons. Reading translated literature is a great way to do this. An often underrepresented part of literature, translated literature can, especially to other writers looking for technique to borrow, provide a whole new perspective and outlook on not just the world, but on writing in general.
In Sea Summit, her debut in English, that is exactly what Yi Lu does. A skilled, award winning poet with five collections of poetry, Yi presents a view of China that is simplistic, naturally beautiful, and at the same time, paradoxical. The inherent beauty of nature, so often sung about in lyric poetry, is juxtaposed with the sharpness of metal and modernity. Industrialism hangs like a haunting specter over some of the poems in this collection, which often paints a striking landscape. In the poem, “A Bird,” Lu writes:
lands on a pile of scrap iron
jumps from one iron plank to another
then bounces to the tip of a thin tilting rod
like a note
handling a very large musical instrument…
Yi channels the culture of China into her poetry, working through and applying pressure to the contrast between the natural world and the noisy concrete of the city. Yi’s poetry is swimming in these questions and conflicts, the creeping progress of gloomy gray skies and skyscrapers. The collection deals with modernity versus nature, which human beings have a complicated relationship with these days. The titular bird in this poem is cheerful and, “chirps twice but asks for no reply,” and after flying away, the speaker realizes that, “the bird has actually moved my heart / astonishing this whole gloomy afternoon.” It is the bird, the natural world, that brightens the day, that remains omnipresent even on a heap of scrap metal.
Yi’s poetry evokes the work of other imagistic poets, particularly William Carlos Williams. Many of the poems in this collection are titled with simple titles such as “An Old Tree” or “Two Porcelain Vases.” These poems direct the lens of the viewer to look only at a single object, or a single scene, and the descriptions of these objects are often plain, but there’s a beauty in their plainness, in their vivid stillness. The poem “Look at the Sunset” draws a scene of a setting sun:
how large, how red the setting sun
blocked by a building it shows only a rim
I run to the study window
to see its left half
I run to the kitchen window
to see its right half
I run to and fro
thinking the sun also longs to peek at me.
The speaker scrambles to see the full reach and breadth of a brilliant sunset, but it’s blocked by a building. This disheartens the speaker, who not only wants to see the sun, but wants the sun to see them in return. This digs at the central conflict of the collection, exemplifying the style of a poet who wants to paint timeless pictures and let the reader draw their own conclusions. Clearly, Yi finds great beauty and great fulfillment in the natural world, but the world, as much as the speaker struggles with this idea, now includes the harsh footprint of humanity. The great beauty of wilderness still exists, but it has merged and mixed with the smoke and smog of industrialism. This creates an all new type of imagistic beauty, and Yi often struggles with this fact, letting the reader view these pictures and join in this struggle as well.
The title poem, “Sea Summit,” digs at these questions that Yi raises. Yi, who lives on the coastal city of Fuzhou in southern China, has a great fascination with the sea. The sea is a form of escapism and solace for a tired narrator. Yi writes, “in a rowdy conference room / I think of the sea summit—“ Once again, modernity is juxtaposed with a sense of old world ruralness. Although, it’s not that simple. While the conference room is rowdy, the sea summit is just as, if not more vicious. The narrator daydreams of the waves which, “are howling,” and of “a chaotic wind [that] swirls on the sea’s surface.” There’s an untamed, visceral quality to this nature that the speaker longs for. The final two lines: “sea summit / in a place so far from me.” The speaker wishes to return to a simpler, albeit more chaotic time than the period that they live in. Nature is terrifying and beautiful, alluring in the fact that it can be so alien to those who live their lives in cities.
Sea Summit is a book of poetry that is primarily concerned with nature and wilderness. Yi paints the demure charm of nature in her poetry, but also doesn’t shy away from the terrifying and wild aspect of it as well. The collection is about the desire to return to nature, the desire to look out the window and see something other than so many concrete walls, but at the same time, Yi is able to see the beauty in these things as well. These themes pervade the collection, appearing in bright, colorful, and striking visuals. Sea Summit sets out to give the reader a vision of nature that reminds them of the everyday grace of trees, of birds, and in this sense, it succeeds. The poetry sings and pulses with life—the unconquerable spirit of the world shown in imagistic flashes of elegance.
Robert Young was born in Fort Wayne, Indiana. He was the Lead Poetry Editor for the 2015 issue of The Broken Plate. His work has been published in Easy Street, Noble/Gas Qtrly, and Exceptions Journal, and is forthcoming in Midwestern Gothic. He is currently an MA student in creative writing at Ball State University.