Jenny Xie’s second poetry collection, Eye Level, reveals the prowess of a new contemporary literary great. The title theme weaves a cohesive fabric of perception—the physical, metaphysical, and cultural act of seeing and being seen—among a rich array of topics ranging from solitude to heritage, migration to land and (dis)placement. Each poem explores the tension between active agency and vacancy, language and the lack thereof, and attempts to establish bridges and distance simultaneously. From Eve, the world’s first migrant, to the speaker herself, Xie’s characters make sense of a world of contradiction, locating its patterns, as even “suffering operates by its own logic” (“Zuihitsu”). The speaker is both enjoined in the common fabric of humanity and its shared experiences and distanced by her position as the observer, the eye that witnesses and records, but ultimately even her solitude is reconciled; while in isolation, her poems embrace the truth that loneliness is universal.
Xie’s structures further enact this universality with poems spanning several pages and incorporating negative space to convey the distance experienced by the speaker, the traveler, the migrant, the woman looking back on the past as the timeline braids it in close intersection with the present. Objects and abstract concepts take on an agency of their own, while people, such as the speaker, are sequestered behind the lens of the eye, seeing without being seen. Thus, she magnifies the beauty that her speaker has come to question, “find[ing] it suspect.”
The collection breaks down into four parts, and while each part considers and explores the overarching themes, Part 1 takes special interest in the subjects of travel, displacement, and the solitude that comes with being the foreign agent in a new location. Interacting with the landscape as much as the people, the speaker engages in the smells and colors (an emphasis placed on whiteness) of Corfu and Phnom Penh, the zippered sounds of motorcars, lonely bar bathrooms, a can of Fanta, the wringing out of her youthful ambitions along with the excess water. Echoing Elizabeth Bishop’s transience among regions, the speaker likens her experiences to her “traveler’s clothes, trying on each passing town for size” (“Rootless”). Faced with the dilemma of dis-belonging, Xie’s speaker becomes an embodiment of a transient, unable to enter full assimilation with her environment in Phnom Penh, as its locals ask if she is passing through. “Here, I am a face unknown,” she declares while entering the Old Fortress in Corfu Town. She is denied access, like the female cats of Corfu, from full entry, “something I can’t ever enter” (“Phnom Penh Diptych: Wet Season”). Juxtaposing the world’s lowly members sweeping roaches with the privileged class ordering oysters and napping in the backseat of a gold Lexus, she observes that the one thing that links them all is desire. But even the speaker cannot engage with it, as it occurs around her, excluding her: “Wanting falls around me. Heavy garment.”
Part 2 also underscores the distance between two subjects, but here its scope widens, allowing for a legacy beyond the immediacy of the speaker and her surroundings. Beginning with a heritage of old wives’ tales, she undertakes an exploration of migration and displacement, the metaphysical distance as well as the geographical. In “Solitude Study,” she ponders, “If only the journey between two people / didn’t take a lifetime.”
“Zuihitsu” in particular adopts the language of legacy, with lines alluding to the passing of information: “Someone once told me”; “My father taught me”; “Zen priest told me.” She pits the senses against each other, the warmed-over bones of January, the stench of fish and “overcooked chattering” forcing her to look hard. Positioned once again as the seer, she mines the double meanings her words and images convey. For instance, “These days, I’ve had my fill of Chinatown and its wet markets.” Xie teases the tension between having one’s fill from consuming until satisfied—indeed, she earlier alludes to pulling apart the evening “with a fork”—and from fatigue, being fed up. The disenchantment of the over-traveled migrant suggests a weight placed on the latter meaning, as the speaker wearies of “braiding of words. I want a spare mouth.” The poem embodies this, and her self-proclaimed elastic attention, with a series of short verse stanzas, a fragmented montage of snapshots from her past. She recalls her father, advising her to be on the look for a way out, even admonishing her to slice a hole, an exitway (one of many references to portals throughout the collection). The transience of always leaving, of choosing to leave or escape, to resist being hooked like a fish by a heavy dream, she further extends in her ability to shake out the imprint of her body on her bedsheets, a literal act of physical removal and transparence.
In some ways, the speaker regards such transience and positioning unfavorably. The migrant wife in “Metamorphosis” trades her stethoscope for a dining-hall spatula, and the speaker in “Naturalization” finds the new country “ill-fitting, lined / with cheap polyester, soiled at the sleeves.” Yet, this tension falls deeper than the external conflict between immigrant and foreign region; the “Inwardly” speaker confesses that the dilemma traces back to the self:
I’m sick of peering at the ego.
No, my ego’s tired of peering at me—
It’s she who awakens me into being.
So it goes: the seer mistaken for the seen.
The ego is a “she,” an entity that interacts and combats with the speaker, determined to wrest her into an active agency, into being. The speaker has mistaken her role as witness for a passive one, just as she had misconstrued her relation to the Ego. This reflects not only the duality of seeing, but also her charge of being, the tension like the tug of a line or the unattainable form behind language within reach. “Or else, why write,” the speaker states.
Struggling with a lack of cohesive language, recognizing the eye’s mistakes for being level, Xie constantly positions and repositions her figures like chess pieces, measuring the distances and the bridges—between classes, race, generation, and two people. She marvels how much past she has to cover in a single evening; she considers partitions, keyholes, the wide frame of self-contempt “almost anyone can pass through” (“Letters to Du Fu”), and ultimately identifies suffering as the universal migrant, one that “doesn’t belong to anyone” (“A Slow Way”). Considering the distance it must cover, she concludes her collection with the realization that “Nothing is as far as here,” implicating, once again, the perspective that the Eye (I, in all its historical, cultural, physical, and spiritual forms) takes to see and be seen.
Shannon Nakai is an MFA graduate of Wichita State University, a poet and book reviewer whose work has been featured in Tupelo Quarterly, 35 Tips for Writing Powerful Prose Poems, River City Poetry, The Bacopa Literary Review, and others. A Fulbright Scholar and English instructor, she currently lives and teaches in Wichita, KS.