Jenny Xie | Eye Level | Graywolf Press: $16.00

The blurbs on the back of Jenny Xie’s debut volume, Eye Level, include the New York Review of Books, Dan Chiasson in The New Yorker, Tracy K Smith and Brenda Shaughnessy. This first book has clearly hit the sweet spot as far as the reviewers are concerned. Dan Chiasson’s comment ends by commenting that Xie’s writing ‘suggests a kind of Fodor’s or Lonely Planet guide to inner life.’

It is true that, almost by definition, travel writing is essentially about the journey around the self. The best travel writing is profoundly observant, its watching of the Other, careful and nuanced; but at the heart of that observation is a sensibility that watches its Self with an equal directness and obsessively calculates the distance between the two. In Xie’s case, that calculation imbues this process with considerable finesse and grace.

In Xie’s case, that dialogue of Self and sensibility focuses, for the first third of Eye Level, on what it means to be alone as one travels. Contained in that part of the book are both parts of ‘Phnom Penh Diptych’, the first part ‘Wet Season’ and the second ‘Dry Season’. Xie’s achievement in the diptych is to offer Phnom Penh in a way which is evocative and alive, and at the same time to show the mind in the process of observation. Inevitably, perhaps that mind is the mind of a young woman as she moves through a world which is both alien and reminiscent of the world she has left behind. In ‘Dry Season’, Xie writes, ‘I sweat over plates of pork dumplings and watery beer. // Can you fix this English? / the Chinese restaurant own asks, pushing a menu toward me. // The men here chew toothpicks like uncles on both sides of my family. / They talk with their moths full. // I translate what little I can, it’s embarrassing. // Just passing through? / asks his eldest daughter, as she turns away to the fan.’

This episode is presented in plain prose, and the effect of that lack of adornment is, I would suggest, to make it more real. The narrative is blandly and neatly organised. And the solitude arises from the sense that the world exists around her and goes on its own sweet way; that passage emphasised by the daughter’s offhand comment placed at the end. Xie’s use of short, declarative sentences is also characteristic of her style at this point. That style can sometimes feel like diary notes, as in these lines from ‘Zuihitsu’, ‘Someone told me, before and after is just another false binary. The warmed-over bones of January. I had no passport. Beneath the stove, two mice made a paradise out of a button of peanut butter.’ The linkages are there in the emotions, but not everyone shares these emotions on the same plain. However, on the whole, the overall sense is of carefully measured disposition; the short lines pitch emotion onto the surface of the text in away that does not avoid emotional exposure.

In the poem, ‘Solitude Study’, Xie muses on her need for solitude, ‘Times when I think a mind uncluttered with others / is the only condition for gentleness // or that memory sticks like cartilage / to the meat of those with the most words // Yet I know we can hold more in us than we do / because the body is without core…’. Such musings seem appropriate for someone who is a traveller, where solitude perhaps enables fuller observation. And here another aspect of her techniques is a deft use of metaphor; a use which seems to exist just on the cusp of being precious, but never quite slips over preciousness.
Some of these poems are attached to stories of her own family’s migration to the United States. And sometimes here, Xie uses the third person; perhaps this is because the process is very emotional, but also perhaps because the third person opens the processes out for generalisation. In ‘Metamorphosis’, for example, Xie writes ‘Nowhere in those kerosene years / could she find a soft-headed match. // The wife crosses over an ocean, red-faced and cheerless. / Trades the pad of a stethoscope for a dining-hall spatula.’ Xie is very good at this focus on contrasting details. Here, the person whom I’m taking to be Xie’s mother lives in a place with a primitive, kerosene fuelled existence as a doctor symbolised by the stethoscope, which is exchanged, in turn, for a primitive eating implement. Again, here, Xie’s placing of the adjectives seems precise and deft.

The fourth and final section of this carefully organised book opens out into a kind of poetry whose direction might take Xie forward in the future. Here, the introspection of the travel poems becomes more an investigation into how one sits within one’s own life as a whole. Xie’s method here is to take the short, charged comments which have enlivened the travel poems and shore them up one against each other. These poems show the mind storing impressions, holding them in a particular place and allowing them to refract one against another. Such a procedure may simply sound post-modern, but Xie’s success is to select so adroitly that the final text feels attuned and complete. These are the final three sections from ‘Margins’, ‘A monk brushes crumbs from the cushion. / In the meditation hall, the sound of bells. / Thinner than any keyhole. // * // Hard to tune / to the last decade of my life. / January, few visitors. // * // Each day mostly like any other. / the way you loved me, a cracked wind / hurrying me along.’ As one of Xie’s blurb writers notes, there is a fine, ‘crystalline’ quality to the poems in Eye Level; both the realism and the mysticism of its themes and music feel warm and achieved.

by Ian Pople

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