M. Drew Williams reviews a stunning collection of poetry by the outrageously talented Chinese-born American poet, Jenny Xie.
Jenny Xie, Eye Level (Grey Wolf Press, 2018), 80pp.
Winner of the 2017 Walt Whitman Award from the Academy of American Poets, Jenny Xie’s book of poems Eye Level is sure to stick in her readers’ minds for a long time to come. Xie is in communication with many of her contemporaries, namely Ocean Vuong, Nick Flynn, and Hieu Minh Nguyen, especially when she is expounding on topics such as family relationships and the hardships of life in modern-day America. Her poetry is able to creep up quietly on a reader and make an undeniably profound impact on one’s pre-established notions of the human condition.
The collection begins with “Rootless,” a poem which immediately establishes Xie’s meticulous attention to stanzaic structure and precise language. It is in this introductory poem that many of the book’s predominant themes are brought to the forefront, most notably isolation, displacement, and an unfulfilled desire to belong:
Can this solitude be rootless, unhooked from the ground?
No matter. The mind resides both inside and out.
It can think itself and think itself into existence.
I sponge off the eyes, no worse for wear.
My frugal mouth spends the only foreign words it owns.
Shortly after this introductory poem, the reader is presented with the two halves of the “Phnom Penh Diptych,” “Wet Season” and “Dry Season,” both of which consist of interconnected sections of verse which explore the vast socioeconomic disparities in Cambodia’s largest, most densely populated city. In dividing the poem into these two parts, with “wet” and “dry” representing affluence and impoverishment, respectively, the poet draws further attention to unequal living conditions. Interestingly, while the speaker presents herself as being closer to the poor than the rich, the reader is given evidence suggesting that she likely occupies the middle class: “Every day I drink Coca-Cola and write ad copy. / I’m in the business of multiplying needs.” Because the two extremes of the economic spectrum are made extraordinarily clear throughout this diptych, the speaker’s middle-class status appears to serve as an indeterminate No Man’s Land. As the book progresses, this sense of alienation grows more and more apparent.
Early in the collection’s third section, the poem “Zuihitsu” focuses on a myriad of interlocking issues ranging from the inevitability of suffering, to the inherent difficulties of communication. As a term, “zuihitsu” refers to a genre of Japanese literature which utilizes loosely-connected essay fragments, beginning with Sei Shōnagon’s The Pillow Book. Often, this style of writing tends to expound on the author’s physical environment. Staying true to its namesake, Xie’s poem provides the reader with several self-contained stanzas of prose, each of which is separated by a considerable amount of blank space, thereby subtly implying the desolate nature of the place at hand, presumably the place from which the speaker is originally from. No other line within the poem seems a more fitting summation of its intent than the following: “Funny, the way we come to understand a place by wanting to escape it.”
Exemplified by poems such as “Lunar Year 1988” and “Naturalization,” the book’s third section also shifts its focus to immigration and the struggles commonly experienced by those who move to a new country—in this case, America. While it is apparent that Xie had at least some intent to showcase the difficulties faced by immigrants, she is also sure to make it clear that any environment, regardless of whether its inhabitants are natives, immigrants or otherwise, can become a home for melancholia. . Earlier in the book, for example, the poem “Displacement”—set in Kerkyra (Corfu), a Greek island in the Ionian Sea, a location which is presumably indicative of a pre-immigration existence—exudes an understated sadness. While the poem’s title could, at first glance, be easily attributable to the subject of immigration, I interpret it as being a broader conception of the word as many of its lines demonstrate a universal sorrow. Even the form of the poem is reflective of its titular concept: by beginning with two blocks of prose before ending with a short-versed stanza, the uncertainty at hand is brought into focus even more. Aside from its formal divergence, the poem’s final stanza also beautifully communicates a lack of control, and the futility embedded in all human endeavors:
Crumbled rust on boat metal.
In order to dock the boat,
the fisherman throws all his weight against the line.
Geography and immigration play a part in coalescing the book’s numerous instances of isolation and generalized detachment. Aside from the previously-mentioned Phnom Penh and Kerkyra, other locations include New York City, Hefei (a Chinese city), parts of Vietnam, and Jardin Centenario (a park in Mexico City). By setting various poems in a myriad of places, Xie gives the reader an undeniable range of sociopolitical and personal spaces.
Though the image of eyes is woven throughout Xie’s book, the motif reaches its pinnacle in “Visual Orders.” A work in fourteen short, distinct sections, the poem dissects our collective preconceptions about sight with the utmost precision. While each section tackles this topic from its own unique angle, the fifth section, a prose poem, could be said to be the epicenter of Xie’s vision:
The seductions of seeing ensure there is that which remains unseen. Evading visibility is its own fortune. If to behold is to possess, to be looked upon is to be fixed in another’s sight, static and immutable.
This poem serves as a counterpoint to the solitude and social disconnection running so prevalently throughout the book. In putting forth the possibility that to behold is to possess, the poet provides her readers with this bit of solace: sight, whether literal or metaphorical, is one thing which unifies everyone. One needs only to consider the book’s epigraph, a few lines from the late Spanish poet Antonio Machado, which reads: “The eye you see is not / an eye because you see it; / it is an eye because it sees you.” An unflinchingly bold first book, Xie’s Eye Level acts as a mirror for existence: one which holds itself up to its readers, and asks them to consider how their life plays into humanity’s collective narrative.
M. Drew Williams is from Western New York. His poetry has appeared in, or is forthcoming from, publications such as Harpur Palate, The New Territory, and Midwestern Gothic. He holds an MFA from Creighton University.