Visceral and enigmatic, Ye Lijun’s collection translated by Fiona Sze-Lorrain reveals the intimate relationship between man and Nature. From home-brewed wine, Lake Huai to an intellectual’s return to her hometown, the poems in her first bilingual volume draw on the interaction between the environment and one’s internal states of being, reflecting on the seen and unseen in everyday life.
An accomplished, multilingual translator and poet, Sze-Lorrain demonstrates her keenness to remain faithful to the meaning and nuanced language in Ye’s poetry. Overall, the translations never stray far from the original, faithfully maintaining the mystery in the poetry, the experimentation with syntax, line breaks and the lack of punctuation, and a sense of fluidity in meaning.
Born in 1972 in Lishui in Zhejiang province, Ye Lijun has worked in teaching, publishing and heritage preservation. Her award-winning poetry deals with a natural world where landscape is imbued with hope as much as sadness, and an introspective self who discovers the truth of life through an intimate observation of the natural world, where
a childhood pupa
climbs out of its armor, free, hanging upside down
its thin wings in a bright spread
A striking feature of her poetry is the way she observes and crystallizes the beauty and vulnerability of the natural world as well as remarks on the human impact on such landscape. In “Partial Solar Eclipse”, we are presented with a solar eclipse on Lishui as the traveler speeds along the path, discovering that “[h]er travels / can never transcend her selfhood”.
One is also struck by the clever way in which the poet explores the paradox of the modern world, with its many forms of distance and intimacy. For example, in “Cool Autumn Painting”, the speaker has a phone conversation with the lover, in which one points out the other has changed. In the poem, the autumn wind is both literal and symbolic. Overcome by the “too many things a soul can’t paraphrase”, the speaker feels the need to trust her body and intuition to find out about the world, hinting at the constant absence of the lover.
In Ye’s poetry, nothing is simply one thing, and that there are no absolute divides between the external and the inner self. In “Grass-things”, the poem shifts from the memories of a road journey with her lover or friend, to the image of wild, overgrown grass at the door of her house. At the end of the poem, the imagined conversation about drawing and Araki—a photographer known for interrogating ideas of sexuality, beauty and femininity in his art—brings home the speaker’s sense of longing for love:
How about studying portraiture with Nobuyoshi Araki? Araki laughs,
My! How can we chat about such profound truth!
All I want is “an erotic afternoon with you in Asakusa.”
—a Maestro indeed
Juxtaposed with the exaltation of Nature, the surreal and the unpredictable magnify the contradictions or complexities in life, such as in “Mountain Night Climb”, where
The higher I reach, the darker it gets
When I lift my head, oh—a massive, black orangutan
In “Flower Complex”, almost a prose poem, the poet shares about her favorite flowers and captures the flavors of different species with refreshing language and detail, while a light-hearted conversation with a friend reminds her of “a faint stench of freshness” that continuously undercuts or bothers someone who lives a plain life. My Mountain Country is as much about as well as about self-discovery or about our responsibility towards Nature, and finding a common language for it.