Eye Level, by Jenny Xie. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Graywolf Press, April 2018. 80 pages. $16.00, paper.
Philosophical, simple, balanced. Such is Eye Level, Jenny Xie’s full-length debut, a collection that returns wisdom from a place seemingly far away and places it for us in full legibility at eye level. Xie practices brevity and clarity, an ability to make deep solitude, or suffering, noble. The poems follow a traveler, a la backpacker, not entangled in but experiencing landscapes, history, strangers’ arms, and coming to terms with being left. If one travels in these poems, they are not a tourist. Xie’s measure echoes ancient mountain poets. And so as the speaker moves from place to port, from the U.S., to Hanoi, to Corfu, Greece, the book becomes an ecosystem of a consciousness. It’s one I’ve felt traveling on my own across country lines. It is as though Xie writes into a traveler’s state of mind. When she writes, she’s on the trail of her own flickering scent. How does one mesh a quixotic experience with an ordinary one? This blend of infinity and the ordinary, of foreign and familiar, home in solitude, is Xie’s palette. The lightness and the loneliness, the harmony and the belonging and the knowing that you are a stranger in this place, hardly fixed, yet fit in in your own way. The knowledge that a foreign place abides by its own rules different from yours, and yet so human, full of mind, and narrative.
Xie’s streams of couplets and revelations contain a great deal of everything. She transforms everyday activities, subverting reality. The tone quiet, immense, inviting. “Sleep is a narrow corridor. Even idleness will tire, forcing the mind to burrow into its emptiness. We said untrue things to make the time go faster, our teeth bright with holes. Nights, sentences clattered in us until they didn’t. I’d forgotten all about humiliation,” Xie writes in “Captivity.” Is one way to release the captive soul to speak it?—“It wasn’t clear if there was an outside world to our outside world.”
As it moves, Eye Level is a book of experience that fits together images from places across the world into the meaning they conjure in a particular moment of the speaker’s life. There is the sense of a coming of age, or rather, a coming into one’s one awakening, that gives the book a narrative feel. A stitching together of disparate times. Xie communicates a Zen ethos in contemporary language. And so these poems feel both crystallized and moving at the same time. They are acute and vast. Infinity visits the page. An embrace ensues.
I admire the writer who lights a literary fire underneath themselves and writes it. Please do let me know if you agree. These are poems of a speaker who is alive and burning: “The woman in Apartment #18 on Bayard washes her feet in a pot of boiled / water each evening before bedtime. But every handful of weeks she lapses. / I lean into the throat of summer.” So Xie translates the verbs and adjectives, the nouns of a moment in “Chinatown Diptych.”
In these pages there is tradition and there is innovation. The people in them suffer with purpose and without it. Is this authenticity?—is this individuality character? As in “Lineage,” a poem about a young woman working sweating labor during the Cultural Revolution and her then unknown future: “Even then she understood the living carry on by being fluid / And that there would be a child / And the child’s face would sting of its own” —note the measured rhythm, the weaving of past, present, and future, of mother and daughter and woman into one. Note the intimacy between the two women, and the separation. This subtle merging of intimacy and separation is the fulcrum behind Xie’s lines. They are both here and close, and they contain precise magnitude. It is one thing to nail tone, which Xie does. Another thing to possess vision, which Xie does. Still it is another thing to braid them together into lines that echo when you read them the way your own body seems to shift in the winds. Xie possesses this gift and imprints it on the page. It is a work of stillness and a work of movement. A work of guts: “Who’s keeping count of what’s given against what’s stolen?”
Is this line key to Xie’s placing things at eye level? Xie translates what is before her eyes in language that excavates what is beneath it. The surface here is just the starting point.
Great art takes you somewhere and integrates you afresh where you are. It shakes you and shows you. It’s elegiac, alive. You feel the care. The awe that comes: “I knelt to the passing time.”
Such a line brings me to my knees. Perhaps this is why it took the Whitman Award of the Academy of the American Poets. Eye Level is refreshing and restorative, spiritual and physical, as great art is. Xie writes into and out from the heart of things. Xie makes the messy look easy, like a light wash.
Louis Elliott is a literature professor, where he teaches at Gratersford Prison through Villanova University’s degree program, and writer living outside New York. His work has appeared and is forthcoming in BOMB, LitHub, Los Angeles Review of Books, Raconteur, and elsewhere. He holds an MFA from Columbia University.