To appreciate Wendy Xu’s poem I begin insensate. Her sentences do not cohere, so I abandon them completely. Her line breaks do not emphasize rhythm, rhyme, or image; what of them, then? The punctuation may be arbitrary. Verb tense won’t sit still. I let my mind and eye and mouth simply drift across the words. From this unreasonable position, I will see what emerges, work my way back toward sense, and finally arrive at judgment.
The words crawl across my brain of their own volition. Many make an impression, some none at all. The shape they form when set free still resembles a poem.
face deer blue fish truth
dumb longwethands green light
earth flight littlebones love heaven
saddled walking tipped up than down years
the years heavy beast a member unstitched
nuisance nuisance nuisance my head to have them
Most of the words are pleasant—‘long wet hands’ is weird in a sticky way, it won’t dissolve as well as the other phrases, ‘little bones’ stays discrete as well. ‘Nuisance’ is the only word of its kind, alien, really, and insistent, like the beeping of a soviet satellite. I feel dreamy and pastoral. In word-Rorschach, I see black butterflies. I am with someone I like in no dangerous way. Is the poem valuable because it creates such kind and allusive space? I feel grateful but also slightly drugged.
I return to the poem and begin to take it apart. Most of the words are a sole syllable. Nothing is hard or gross or scary but many things are strange and worth noticing. My attention will always ping at fish, deer, trees, and parts of the body; I am simple in my passions. Most of the verbs are either being or having, ways to arrive or become, or cozy gerunds like walking, reaching, and settling. There are many conversational comfort phrases like ‘such were,’ ‘if truth is,’ ‘some days,’ ‘likely,’ and ‘love’ in its only banal sense. Safe, safe, safe, the words hum, we are safe in time.
If I take the poem as a collage clipped from someone else’s walk in the country and apply the title “the years” to it as an organizing principle of some sort—metaphorical, allegorical, or thematic— interesting shadows emerge. ‘Un/observed,’ ‘flail,’ ‘shot,’ ‘peeled,’ ‘unstitched,’ ‘long wet hands,’ and of course, ‘nuisance.’ The prevailing sense of safety remains, but edged with discomfort. There is a shot, but the deer run from it. The ‘long wet hands’ reach but do not grasp.
Rhetorically, the poem seeks to refute its opening statement: ‘such were the years.’ It is a gesture with no content, the sort of thing one says to erase the possibility of speech rather than employ it. Where does the dark begin settling? Xu wants to know. She then illustrates some of what is obscured: dreams, annoying and useless vibrancy (‘trees dressed in wild / green light’), events saddled and specific although only in the vaguest of ways. The shifting verb tenses suggest that the years lack even linearity. The irritant-phrase deserves a pearl, and the poem achieves iridescence but not solidity. Why?
The poet is young. There can be no mistake. Once this intuition is added, the refuted phrase attaches to an aged interlocutor. How does a young poet write about time? For youth it is compelling to imagine great age, although the fascination rarely goes in the other direction. Xu is not objective. She wants something that has been denied. You who know: tell me! What are the years like? Are they like this? They seem like this! Did you really come all this way only to offer nothing of use to those coming after? There is, of course, no answer, only the reaching of those ‘long wet hands,’ and an arrogant assumption of heaven. The poet’s refutation is disoriented and unfinished and more honest for it.
Xu was born in China and educated in Iowa and Massachusetts. Her unusual use of English is not so much the virtuosic rule-warping of the native genius as the radical deconstruction of something laboriously acquired, but not less impressive or useful. ‘Nuisance,’ is also ‘new sense.’ Every lingua franca invites its own dis-assembly. The globe-straddling estate of English can (and should) be broken into at innumerable points. English can now be written without regard to rule and we are obliged to make sense of it. Poetry like Xu’s gives happy reason to do so. Her poem is even a visual pun. It resembles Old English verse. Almost every line is interrupted somewhere in the middle with a comma or period. The resemblance is only visual, though. Her verse lacks the alliteration, internal rhyme, and deep assonance otherwise associated with that ancient stuff.
This, then, is the building of a pleasing, interesting, and inhabitable mishmash representative of our time and politics. Xu is able to create both a genuine sensation of security at a subconscious level and an engaged rhetoric at the conscious through familiar word choice and unfamiliar construction. Married to the subject matter, the passage of time, the technique is effective. But what about the architect? Can her approach handle harder, weightier matters? The poem has skin but no blood. What will Xu do when the shot fells the deer and its heart explodes over the clover, when the years collapse into an irreducible, unspeakable, and concrete moment?