Review of Fiona Sze-Lorrain’s The Ruined Elegance

Fiona Sze-Lorrain’s The Ruined Elegance, (Princeton University Press, 2016) touches on various aspects of humanity through an intercultural lens. The content of this book is of no surprise considering the author was born in Singapore and grew up trilingual; speaking French, English and Chinese. She is a musician, poet, literary translator, and cofounder of Cerise Press. The poems in the book reflect a rich amalgamation of diverse cultures and time periods. On one page, the Cultural Revolution in Tibet is discussed, and on the next we see narratives from World War II. Sze-Lorrain brings interest to them with her vivid, inspired imagery and driven metaphor. Highly crafted and interesting, I still found myself a bit detached emotionally in the book, which may be more this reader’s fault than the author’s.

There are four parts in The Ruined Elegance. The first touches on never knowing the true feelings and experiences historical figures underwent, and the last being the aftermath of all events discussed. However, a theme that seems to be consistent throughout the book is war and its effects on the individual and society. Through all the turmoil depicted, we still get a sense of grievance, hope and pride. Sze-Lorrain touches on life before, after and during a war in not just one country, but multiple. It can be assumed that the title The Ruined Elegance is referring to the beauty of life that is destroyed by war, politics and violence. The poem titled “I Wait For the Ruined Elegance” dwells on the beauty of her surroundings with knowledge that destruction is on the way.

      Plum blossoms comb the southern mountain. Maybe
      maybe spring. What can the difference
      give a bystander? If
      only swallows mend the wind, another way to choose-
      tree to tree, grievance
                        by grievance. I watch
      the sun turn from a sphere to a palace. Burning,
      but not disastrous. Soon, or
            now, my gaze
      will break. I want to honor
      the invisible. I’ll use the fog to see white peaches.

If you are particularly interested in global history and culture, then you should pick up The Ruined Elegance. Sze-Lorrain does a compelling job of touching on new topics on each page. There is a lot of variation in style and the poems are relatively short with concise language, which makes this a fluid, informative, albeit sometimes difficult, read.