Colorado State University Center for Literary Publishing

Book Review

Debts & Lessons

By Lynn Xu

Reviewed By Cassandra Eddington

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I want to begin at the beginning of this book. I want to do this not just because the first poem (a quatrain centered on the page) has been visually branded on my brain with all its lyric intensity, but because it and this first section introduce concerns that are then tested throughout the book. We begin in the litany: “Say you will die for me / Say you will die for me / Say you will die for me / Say you will die for me.”  The stakes are high, and the speaker’s demands are great. But it isn’t death of the other that the speaker is asking for but language—a bond that might be possible through it. Concerns with language are explicit in this section where language is both a separating and joining force (“Language exists because nothing exists between those / who express themselves”). In our desire to bridge the void inherent in language, language becomes a prayer “Held in the dark, without sleep.” Language is both a source of the darkness and a comfort in the darkness. Faith and language are indistinguishable structures and pursuits. Within this logic, faith is only a condition because one could be faithless. Faith creates “two hells”: “The one you are in. And the one you are after.” The hell we’re “after” here is as much what we are desiring as it is what we have survived.

But these concerns with language are not a hellish nightmare. The promise of morning exists in the forms of voice and sound. Sound “is positioned in the other and is poetic because it is unspoken.” We desire what is possible in the other, what we lack. Poetry is found in the other where it has yet to take the form of voice or hymn. “Sound is incident to the heart / exists”: sound is an occurrence possible not because of a certain quality of the heart (not ye pure in heart) but because of the heart’s mere existence. A biological fact: “The heart which is an orgasm.” Sound is possible because of the heart (our own, another’s). It is Charles Olson’s integration of the body at the level of syllable and line radically altered, physical meeting metaphysical: the HEART, by way of the HEART, to SOUND, LANGUAGE, and SONG. This poetics is one of the other, a belief in the possible forms other might take, and a humility and awareness that the form of what is other will permeate the heart of the speaker.

Lynn Xu’s Debts & Lessons takes its title from Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations—an aphoristic text that enacts the self-transformation and philosophy-as-practice of Stoicism. In Xu’s Debts & Lessons, we also see aphoristic moments of discovery and transformation, moments of the speaker engaged in a different kind of self-transformation (“I am sorry I could not keep you in my mind. / I am a bad person. // My heart is so light”). Aurelius’s Debts & Letters, the first book in a series of twelve that are collectively called Meditations, is dedicated to family, friends, and teachers, and catalogues the lessons he has learned from them. In Xu’s Debts & Lessons, questions of tradition and lineage echo through the book: “In the face of the poet, it’s important to track / which features are your own.” Within the statement, this question reverberates: which features are your own? But this question doesn’t seem an anxious one. Rather, the activity of tracking is sustaining. In the face of poet-as-self, the poet-as-other can be found; in the face of poet-as-other, traces of the speaker can be found, too. One of the most moving examples of this sustaining activity can be found in the section “Lullabies,” whose poems’ titles are simply dedications to deceased poets. While some of these poems may appear akin to the deceased poets’ work, these poems do not function as translations; rather, some seem in conversation with the poets’ lives, while some are formally engaged with the poets’ individual poetics. As Xu says, these poems began in “an interest in surface, in the poem as echo chamber” win which she might see her voice “as a gust of wind.” Xu explains that these poets were “of wayward spirit and mind” with difficult lives, the repercussions of which were suicide for many of them. In Lullabies, Xu creates what she hoped was “a place of rest of stillness for these voices.”

Loving engenders intimacy. The resulting proximity creates space for further loving. Lynn Xu’s song is born out of this space of intimacy. She traces the genealogy of this loving: “Turn your ghost that / Way such that I may mine, and with what.” The dead don’t just make themselves an example for the living, but it is only through an attention to their ghosts that we are able to move as we desire, to take shape. And I’m reminded of Jack Spicer—one of the poets who receives a dedication in the section Lullabies—and his claim that “things do not connect, they correspond.” The word choice—correspond—is particularly useful if we consider the etymology, which initially conveyed “mutual response, the answering of things to each other.” Debts & Lessons enacts this: the poems create the attention necessary for our developing faith in this radical interpretation of tradition. In answering each other, we are met, and still, “We fall against our ghosts / Sometimes.” This correspondence as mutual response can be found everywhere: “The lightnings greeted each other / measure for measure.” And you develop a faith that correspondences exist among things: “Right food / Left foot / Fingernail / Nightingale.” All things small and beloved being gathered, finding each other in sound. Even when we enter more corporeal territory, it still comes out as a prayer: “I have to screw / A little thing / I have to screw. / All is / Moved by love.”

Posted 4/22/2014

Cassandra Eddington was raised in Utah but now lives, writes, and teaches in Fort Collins, Colorado where she received her MFA in poetry from Colorado State University. She was a finalist in Ahsahta Press' 2012 Sawtooth Poetry Prize competition. Fragments from her long poem "the hungry matter" were published by Gazing Grains Press as a part of their miniature book series in 2013. Recent work can be found online in Word For/Word, Otoliths, and ditch. Other work is forthcoming in La Vague.