Jenny Xie’s Eye Level (Greywolf Press 2017)
Review by Aria Aber
Within the last decade or two, poets of color like Suji Kwok Kim, Natalie Diaz, Ishion Hutchinson, Athena Farrokhzad, Warsan Shire, and Cathy Park Hong have shown that the private is always public for the disenfranchised citizen. Writing from a liminal space, these authors study the seams between cultures, post-colonization, cultural integration, linguistic assimilation and inherited wars. The homelessness that the loss of one’s default language and culture can incur is, after all, independent from an actual political exile and can happen, as with indigenous cultures, within the safe confines of your own country. Or, as Jenny Xie’s poetry debut Eye Level demonstrates, within the confines of any borders—even those of your own physicality.
The meticulously precise book Eye Level discusses the ironies of exile as frictions between the private and public, the interior and exterior, identity and geography. Her lyric poems relentlessly question the body’s hunger to belong to a logical, chronological, and place-centered narrative. This narrative is, per the speaker, retrieved through our most reliable adult sense: sight. But, as sight is inherently unreliable and can only study the exterior, the speaker is always trapped in a paradox, in a tug-of-war between two worlds. Xie’s poems travel Cambodia, Southern Europe, China and the US, while, like vagabonds, the people in the poems feel uprooted and excluded from their surroundings.
Xie’s collection, which was selected by Juan Filipe Herrera for the prestigious Walt Whitman award, begins with the aptly titled poem “Rootless,” which exposes a traveler’s concerns about solitude. Echoing a sentiment that even Emily Dickinson argued, the cerebrally acute speaker tells herself” “No matter. The mind resides both inside and out. / It can think itself and think itself into existence.” This argument—namely, that belonging and the self’s fluid identities are related only to the psyche rather than the unfamiliar landscape the body inhabits—is one that will resurface again and again in the book. The final couplet of the first poem announces the speaker’s own rootlessness, crystalizing the ironies of exile:
At present, on this sleeper train, there’s nowhere to arrive.
Me? I’m just here in my traveler’s clothes, trying on each passing town for size.
The vagabond mind is both homeless and can take root anywhere. To come up with a rather simple example for the conditions of exile, we can look at the Tillandsia: the air plant thrives anywhere that offers sun and water, unbounded by earth. Similarly, the minds of exiled children flourish, even if alienated, in many places; exile becomes an advantage. “Rootless” offers a premise for Xie’s collection, inviting us to question home and belonging in each following poem.
Eye Level is divided into four parts, the first of which is comprised of poems discussing countries abroad. The Phnom Penh Diptychs are long poems, sectioned into vignettes and snapshots of life in the Cambodian capital during the wet and dry season. Xie excels in compressing emotional, sensory and intellectual information into couplets and monostichs which allow her to pay attention to minute details: “There’s new money lapping at these streets / Thirsts planted beneath the shells of high-rises” or “An hour before midnight, the corners of the city begin to peel. / Alley of sex workers, tinny folk songs pushed through speakers.” While these snapshots successfully convey the image of a newly rising city, the danger of exoticizing the class struggle of another’s country is, somewhat cleverly, circumvented (see the use of “sex workers” instead of “prostitutes” and the lack of moral judgement regarding pollution). Xie also declares her speaker as Other in the surroundings, showing cognizance of her own privilege. Not only does she contextualize this part of the book with a quote from Jamaica Kincaid’s A Small Place, but she also mentions her tourist-speaker’s hungry “gaze,” fueled by an “outsider’s extravagant need / While [she] listened for the dialects” and “hunted down the night markets’ chewed lips.”
These diptychs are a true testament to Xie’s gift for creating original images that “ring red with everything” for a long time after reading them—with the precision of an alchemist, she mixes sensory information to create synesthesia: “The zippered notes of bike engines enter / through an opening in my sleep.” Or later, noticing that “even the rain sweats, unkempt like the rest of us.” Such brilliant moments of linguistic and visual invention make up for, and perhaps explain the few instances that feel more expected (water growing out of water). As a reader, I am surprised but trust the writer enough to believe those moments. This is not to say that those simpler lines let down, but that they—usually placed at the end of a long, fastidiously rendered sequence—are “earned” and alleviate the sometimes densely taut language.
One classic way to combat the psychological anguish of displacement is to recreate the lost country through food. In Eye Level, food and national cuisine, or the lack thereof, offer a verbal palette that lets us revisit home while also offering mental sustenance. Xie animates the material world through active longing, avoiding pathetic fallacy by translating abstractions into digestible matter: “I pull apart the evening with a fork. White clot behind the eyes.” Throughout the entire book, the strange, foreign topographies are turned into food (“Ice, entire cakes of it,” “kernels of rainwater”), or they turn the speaker into food: “the mouth of the outer world / sipping gingerly / on the broth of us.”
For the aspirant middle class, food becomes a status symbol by which to define one’s wealth. In the second part, which deals with a family’s immigration story, Xie uses this symbolism to illustrate poverty, announcing with musical genius the “over-warmed bones of January” or “two mice” making “paradise out of a button of peanut butter.” The poem “Lunar New Year, 1988,” draws the picture of a family that attempts to mask its economic status in family photographs:
The husband and the brother in law remove every item from the refrigerator
And arrange it all on the old card table for a Kodak photo.
One bottle of artificial mango drink for show.
How soon a photograph can erase all labor.
It says: we are sated, but the watercress and the pork are unending.
While this book glimmers with beautiful and sensual writing, Xie restrains her language with skill and sheer elegance. The economy of emotional descriptors as well as the clinical attention to sensory detail successfully convey the pathos of a wanting family dynamic. The speaker, trapped between countries, lacks not only a sense of definite belonging but also a sense of emotional certainty which the at times painful details (“A wife bleaches out the urine smell from the bathroom tile / while suffering the clean cuts of an insult”) attest to.
“Metamorphosis” highlights the changes that accompany immigration. Xie writes a mother figure who gave up an old country’s “pad of a stethoscope for a dining hall spatula” of the new country. This intelligent use of synecdoche renders a familiar trope to an innovative and heart-breaking image. The speaker’s distance towards the subject disposes of sentimentality. I thought of my own immigrant doctor parents, who were humbled with “working-class jobs.” The alienated subject anchors herself with a meal, albeit unbeknownst to us whether this is for her job or herself: “Every night she made a dish with ground pork, / paired with a dish that was fibrous.” At first glance, the temporal opening of “every night” bears witness to an economically forced routine. At second glance, however, we see this habit transformed from routine to ritual, as cultural traditions often center around a meal. The title, then, becomes multidimensional: the woman is morphed from doctor to cook, while the cooking morphs from an act of work to ritual. Again, Xie elevates the bleak sadness of exile with a sense of ironic but spiritual devotion.
As the title suggests, the fulcrum of the book is Xie’s radical looking, following the premise that noticing equals preservation and sense-making. However, her sense of sight surpasses the eye and encompasses all senses, while restlessly searching for an eye that can turn inward and scrutinize the “I.” The most difficult and ambitious part is at the heart of the third section, wherein Xie discusses interiority. Her study of sight in “Visual Orders” is guided by essayistic impulses, questioning both the biological and psychological attributes of sight. This poem demands to be read in relation to the preceding and following texts, as it answers to and reverberates Xie’s concerns and obsessions. Most of the 14 fragments deal with the phenomenology of seeing and being seen:
What atrophies without the tending of a gaze? The visible object is constituted by sight. But where to
spend one’s sight, a soft currency?
Xie’s eye falls everywhere, attempting to create a selfhood that understands the other. Ironically, she deploys the world “profligate” twice in this section, referring to the speaker’s self. But the language, although taking risky leaps, is never profligate. Xie describes with searing tenderness her journey inward: “Describe how the interior looks. / Cloak the eyes. / Close them, and seeing continues.” While some fragments read like exercises of lyric imagination, others vibrate with sonic and intellectual genius: “That we are touchable makes us seen” or, as is the truth with anyone who’s ever perceived themselves as Other, “Self-consciousness anticipates an excess of seeing. Its incessancy.”
Xie doesn’t only travel in subject matter, but also in form. She borrows the ancient Japanese form “Xishuitsu.” Tracing her own ancestry in her notes, her lyric and imagistic precision bears witness to her appreciation of Chinese poetry. Poets Li Shangyin and Zhang Yanghao wrote allusive poems that pondered on the mind’s fallacies, as well as social unrest. Like her poetic influences, Xie creates a pleasure for both the ear and mind. In “Letters to Du Fu,” her lyric fragments form observations that are both smart and humorous:
They say too much brooding elongates the mind
Everywhere one lands the train arrives at the depot early or late
Du Fu, too, moved often and dedicated his life to writing poetry about historical and personal losses.
Xie’s poems need to be read carefully; they defy the short attention span required for image-heavy and pseudo-aphoristic “trendy poetry,” if we want to ascribe to that term. Eye Level is not a difficult book because it necessitates an academic education but because it wants to be read with the same patience and attention that must have gone into writing it. If read in chronological order—and the poems certainly benefit from being read that way—the joys of arriving at poems like “Melancholia” or “Exit, Eve” are indescribably rewarding both on an aesthetic and intellectual level. Frankly, I am astonished by the emotional impact such sparse and taut language can have. For the scholar, this is a book of allusions, connections, and rich intra-connected voices, which allow for endless study. For the poet, this is a book of endless wonder, an instructive guide to learn from, a model to look at for restraint and truth-searching, a book to keep close in times of artistic solitude. For the general reader, this is also a book of wonder, guiding us—regardless of our ethnicities and immigration history—closer to the problems that gnaw at each and every one of us. Xie doesn’t pretend to have the answers, but she knows how to honor the questions with a precision that stems from a deep-seated, profound love for the world: “She had trained herself to look for answers at eye level, / but they were lower, they were changing all the time.”