X is for Xie – Third in a Series Featuring a Reverse Alphabet of Poets Beginning at Z for Zwicky, Y for Yasmin

Chinese American poet Jenny Xie. Photo Credit: Teresa Mathew


The black dog approaches?
I pry open the crooked jaw.

A heady odor, elemental.

And then?
I spin through my life again.

How so?
Slow and fast, fast and slow.

What follows?
Time, the oil of it.

What direction?
Solitude throws me off the scent.

And what lies ahead?
Even the future recoils, long as it is.

What points the finger?
All of my eye’s mistakes.

And what were they?

Jenny Xie from Eye Level, Graywolf Press, 2018

I first came across the idea of using an “undervoice” or interrogator in a poem through the American poet Carl Phillips. It helped me add a torque I felt was missing in the introductory poem of my first full-length collection. And I use the word torque because that’s the word Jenny Xie uses to talk about how how  adding the interrogator to her poem on melancholia torqued it up, added tension.

Jenny Xie came into the full limelight of the poetry scene in the US in 2017 when she won a number of accolades for her her debut collection Eye Level including being short-listed for the National Book Award. And in 2020 she was recognized with a prestigous Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise. Currently she teaches at Bard College in New York State.

Here are some of her thoughts on her poem from the Poetry Society of America website:

This formal structure, the mode of interrogation, had a certain charge. You can hear the echoes of an analysis session in it, but I was also drawn to the dance of riddling there, too.

In riddling, the slant ways of describing or approaching an object seem more pleasurable than arriving at an answer. What animates the exchange is the deferral of understanding, with descriptive lines revealing but also further obscuring the object. The back-and-forth, and the feeling around the shaded contours of something, felt like the right form for a poem aiming to locate the nature of a loss, which remains concealed and unknowable. I liked the drawing out of tension, the probing. The questions open to answers, which keep opening.

This poem reflects how Xie’s poetry seems to come in on a slant and retains an illusive quality. It is not predictable. It surprises.  There is a riddling quality for sure, a mysteriousness that needs to  accepted not struggled with. Enjoy the journey, let the destination if you find one, come later.

There is a freshness and surprise right away in Jenny’s poem. First the surprise of a question about the black dog. But even more surprising is the answer. Under the title melecholia black dog seems pretty easily identified with Winston Churchill’s description of depression. But: To pry open its crooked jaw? To walk right inside the jaws of depression. Wow. Yet this is what this poem is about, walking right inside melecholia or depression and finding the disorientation there.

After the crooked jaw, the odor, then spinning through life again ( spinning with its sense of manic). Then the slipperiness of time, and then how solitude can take her away from her life, And the thought that in depression even the future recoils from itself. And finally the word play with eye and level which points back to the title of her book, Eye Level, where this poem is taken from. And this idea that all her mistakes, the mistakes of the “I” are looking right at her.  The dehabilitating sense of destructive self-criticism. And yet I wonder about “level” as the poem’s last word. I think of level as in to level, to tell the truth. Not sure all of the eye’s (I’s) mistakes inside melencholia can be taken as true.

In an interview with BOMB magazine in 2018 Jenny gives a glimpse into her creative process which I find echoes an impulse of mine to read the work of others before I begin to write.

I find that when I sit down to compose, my mind needs ample time to loosen and to unlatch from more linear, familiar lines of thinking. One way to get myself to a more wild, elastic mental space is to read before I compose. It’s always not “reading” in the sense of plowing through a book, or surrendering to the absorption of narrative; it’s more like dipping in and out of different texts, as a way to spur disorientation. I get bored when I draw close to something I’ve written or created recently, so infecting myself with other lines (or films, music, artwork) is a way of working toward self-forgetfulness. I don’t necessarily fear other voices, because my own “voice,” if I have one, is constructed and reinforced from a lifetime of reading and listening. I’m most energized when I don’t quite sound like myself, because that’s when I get curious about what or whom I’m inhabiting, and what can be wielded with a different voice or mode of speaking.

I so appreciate her idea of cultivating self-forgetfulness. Or I would say ditch my preconceived notions of what I want to write or who I am as I write, and let myself be surprised by the poem. And it is ironic that in doing that I may find some hidden self inside my dominant self with lots to tell me!

And I wonder who Jenny was reading before she wrote this poem? Du Fu, the great T’ang Dynasty poet perhaps?! The terse and arresting  images in the poem, the phrases that feel like aphorisms, the abrupt pauses within lines and through stanza breaks. Much craft and much to savour. A poem worth coming back to chew on again and again. I am grateful for you Jenny Xie. Isn’t it so true? We are wrung and wrung.


Letters to Du Fu

I paid a visit to the province of a past year        aided by a pot of wine
self-contempt erects a wide frame        almost anyone can pass through

So unruly are my needs        who would own up to it
Only a fool would try to imitate the arrow        before letting go the bow

Du Fu, do not attempt this journeying        with a whip of effort
to speed up your travel        step backward into the broad forgetting

They say too much brooding        elongates the mind
Everywhere one lands        the train arrives at the depot early or late

Fruitless to try and compare        your searching lines
with the rain’s heavy lather        I’ll take instead the shaved surface of the moon

We are wiped of age first thing in the morning        sleep is a light wash
and don’t we know it        we are wrung and wrung

Jenny Xie, ibid

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