I first encountered Lynn Xu’s work in a church in Seattle, which was fitting, as her reading was as close to a spiritual experience as a poetry reading can possibly get for me. I am not typically floored by poetry readings, but I savored every pearlescent syllable, as if each word could be grasped somehow beyond sense and sound—word as star-crumb, vibrating stone, dew-eye on a blade of grass. The poem she read was “Lullaby,” which she dedicates to Charles Baudelaire:
Lie me down to heal in sleep, do not let me wake
In sin, the tongue
Cancels another year, another painted storm
In the coral caves, some pious poet
Drunk on vapors
Swatting tomb-bats in the nightwood, would that
Wayward bark sunned white
Be also thunder, a hill of bones drumming—thud
Thud, a wake
Of buzzards braiding into the loosening skull—the redoubled fists
Of students like an island in the bramble chained—I have been told
To reason, lawless, empty, without rights—
But I am old
Not age, I have been told
To match its columns by our footfall, prophet—I am not
The straw or garland of our Sirens, not the brow
Of holly, nor the warble
Of any lark
By the time the buzzards were “braiding into the loosening skull,” I found myself intoxicated, caught within the sonic current, the vibrant (and fascinatingly strange) gust of images. Xu writes of her work at the Poetry Society of America:
Several mirrors and revolving doors away, some blue planet shades into our sky. Intoxicated by this, as if by its own clairvoyance, the poem displays its plastic powers—fluoresces and, over time, decays. Still a transient and delicate substance, language nevertheless secures for us a strong interior, sharpness against our natural world. Of course, its occult successes in this regard must meet an equal measure of unsuccess: such that the leafy dark in the Courbet retain its phatic life, and the crisscross of rubble in Egypt not beautiful to the point of transparency or terror. Sometimes, a poem is made to furnish restlessness.
That word—“restlessness”—emerges again in an interview at HuffPost, and indeed a sensation of restlessness whirs through the density and intensity of the language, its shifting sediment like thought-material stirring in the subterranean dark of an unconscious mind. A mind in the process of dreaming, or remembering.
The title Debts & Lessons is an allusion to the first section of Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations, wherein he pays tribute to those who have instructed and influenced him. Xu's book circles around inheritances—of languages, histories, traditions, minds, memories—both implicitly and explicitly conversing with them. The section “Lullabies” (the source of the poem I heard), for example, is a gathering of poems dedicated to literary influences: Hart Crane, Frank O’Hara, Gu Cheng, Celan, Apollinaire, Artaud (to name a few, and to show the range). Or, for example, the section “Night Falls” engages implicitly with the inheritance of language, offering a sequence of linguistically hybrid poems—in Chinese and English, two languages Xu grew up speaking—set opposite their “translations,” which are not translations in the literal sense. It is almost as if they are translations of some other element of the poem beyond language itself, or as if translation here is a process of remembering. Perhaps in some sense they display that nothing is “lost in translation"—that translation itself is a process of creation and recreation. And that is how the poems read: not only as the process of creation, but also of the evolutionary process that draws from that well of terrestrial memory, that inherits and reinvents the primordial material again and again.
Debts & Lessons is language—is world—as a “transient and delicate substance.” As a latticed cloud of breath in the air. It is the poem as blood vessel configuration. The poems are intricately quiet, yet at times surreally violent. Some images disturb or trouble the waters (as with "scuds of wheat/ eyelid by eyelid dividing me" or "the prehensile television of our minds"). Some words pierce the firmament. Purchase it here.
(Thanks very much to BAP and Stacey Harwood for giving me the opportunity to share my thoughts this week!)