“Suffering operates by its own logic. Its gropings and reversals. Ample, in ways that are exquisite.” I am inclined to agree with Jenny Xie’s assessment of suffering, and to add that her poems too operate in this way, by their own logic, and are ample in ways that are exquisite. Ample in language, sensory perceptions, in complex thought and originality; her long prosaic lines slide languorously across the page throwing piercing glances that are at once profound and mundane. These are poems that live in the world, a bustling world of endless change that can leave a person feeling stranded. And it is this joint feeling of connection and estrangement that give the poems in Eye Level their unusual depth. Xie makes an art of aloneness, her poems are steeped in solitude and yet somehow coursing with life, they reflect that state of solitariness that exists in cities, where life is always moving and yet the days stay the same. In “Phnom Penh Diptych: Wet Season” Xie writes, “banality / accrues with no visible evidence,” yet the evidence exists—unseen.
I knew from the opening poem, “Rootless,” what Xie’s intentions with this book were with lines like “I sponge off the eyes, no worse for wear” alongside clear descriptions of place, “Between Hanoi and Sapa there are clean slabs of rice farms / and no two brick houses in a row.” This was going to be a collection that employed the camera eye, an eye that seems to separate from the self in order to explore the world outside of the self, and yet what I didn’t immediately grasp was how deep into the psyche these poems would also look. As, ultimately, Eye Level is concerned with not only with what is visible, but the endless distances between people and bottomless pit within ourselves.
The source of this rootlessness is never laid bare entirely, but it stems from the end of a relationship which leads to this state of aloneness, but it also began long ago when Xie’s family was uprooted and relocated, “The new country is ill fitting, lined / with cheap polyester, soiled at the sleeves.” Once rootless, the speaker of many of these poems travels to numerous places: Hanoi, Phnom Pehn, Corfu, New York and stays for long periods or brief ones. The speaker looks to become a stranger to herself, to hide within locations and within language. Just as the camera obscures the tourist while also giving them a way to lay claim to something outside of themselves, language obscures the poet, offers a lens through which to experience the world. And just as the camera closes and creates distances, so do words. And so, in many ways, the dominant speaker in Eye Level remains elusive, no matter how close she comes to revealing herself there is always more outside of the frame. More than even the speaker can ever see.
“There are no simple stories because language forces distances” Xie writes in “Invisible Relations,” and Eye Level is far from a simple story. At its heart is the tension of the eye/I relationship, the relationship between what the self sees and what the self is, how they are bound to one another and yet distanced. This relationship is so complex and often convoluted that only poetry can really capture the richness of this connection. Though all of the poems in Eye Level are concerned with the eye/I relationship to some extent, in “Visual Orders” Xie looks directly into her own gaze in order to attempt to grasp the mutability of this boundary:
The acquisitive, insatiable I.
A disembodied eye cannot be confined
to the skin and what it holds captive.
The presence of the unseen has more presence
than that which is exhausted by vision.
We inhabit this incoherence.
When Keats wrote about negative capability he was thinking about the admirable quality of writers who are comfortable within uncertainties, within doubt and mystery; in Eye Level, Xie exhibits this admirable quality as she embraces living within such bewildering spaces fraught with unease. Xie closes “Visual Orders” with the line, “She has to keep circling,” the speaker reminds herself “There is no reversing” and so even though the circle loops back it is never the same circle and the motion is always forward. Oddly, I found this—and many of the small wisdoms Xie so beautifully packages—comforting. Here is a poet who has given voice to the loneliness of always being separate, captive within our skin and our bodies, but not helpless, perhaps because we have our eyes, “a pair of globes with their own meridians.”
The poems that inhabit Eye Level are modern, prosaic, sparse, striking, organic, contemplative, original, biting and yet surprisingly quiet as if they were attempting furtively to not be watched, not be seen. They are also remarkably, especially for a debut collection, tonally consistent, as if the entire book were one long poem, and Xie’s longest poems in the collection are also some of the most impressive. It is not surprising that Xie’s collection won the coveted Walt Whitman Award for first books which is sponsored by The Academy of American Poets and published by one of the best presses for poetry— Graywolf Press. There are some poets whose work truly shines when brought together in a collection, when the poems are allowed to speak to one another, stand on each other’s backs until they can peer over any fence, and into the eyes of any reader willing to give a part of themselves in order to receive so much more in return. Jenny Xie is one of these poets, and though I had never encountered her work until I read this book, I now look forward to following what will surely be a bright and long career.
Release Date: April 3rd
Brunch: I was inspired by the cover of this book which features a persimmon split open on a white pillow, and knew I had to have brunch in bed. These are actually gluten-free/dairy free pancakes which surprisingly taste better (in my opinion) than classic buttermilk pancakes, I added lemon zest and blueberries to the batter today, though they are also good with cardamom, cinnamon and apples. I didn’t have persimmons so I sliced some clementines and served it all up with coffee and of course syrup.
*All Fork and Page reviews are by Anita Olivia Koester