Reviewed By Timothy Otte
- Fence Books (2017)
- 88 pages
Wendy Xu is primarily a lyric poet. Her second full-length collection of poems, Phrasis, is committed to the lyric, in the sense that her poems are attuned to the sonic qualities of language and arrive in condensed parcels that balance introspection with an attention to the world around her. Phrasis is written in the tradition of Dickinson and H.D.’s short works, by way of John Ashbery. There are nods to the kind of book-length projects that many American poets engage in: each section of the book begins with an untitled fragment from what can be read as a single poem and there are several poems titled “Phrasis.” But on the whole, the book reads like a collection of self-contained lyrics whose purpose is to examine the ways language can slip from our grasp.
Where some lyric projects can fall flat, Xu is canny enough to change dynamics from poem to poem, line to line, or sentence to sentence. Poems like “Disclosure for Solo Violin” and “Arrangements” are open on the page, each line a new beginning. The first half of “Arrangements” is:
At one end signal any cloud, early-ish
I half desire particulars of a walnut
The dream of who I do not kill comes to me eager
Linen shirts crisping out a line, I having dressed two
There is a rhythm here, each line wrapping up its own thought, even if the sentence is incomplete. Contrast that with a poem like “October Sift,” which begins:
In one story God speaks to the weary sailor
on existence as uninspired fact, shoves off the brittle
white boat toward steaming
Unlikely that consciousness remained there
within him, peak conditions for song if we
Here, there is a narrative at work, and each line pulls the reader to the next. This is partly a function of enjambment and the lack of stanza breaks, but even the syntax operates differently in these two passages. Yet, the book would feel incomplete without either of them.
The title, Phrasis, is the Ancient Greek word that gives us the word “phrase,” and means “speech” or “manner of expression”—a fitting title for a poet who is continuing the New York School project of blending everyday speech with elevated diction. In some poems, common phrases are upended, as in one section of “Phrasis (Imagine)”:
I say to another fuck yeah kind of night, burning
the candle at both intonations of a flame
The phrase “fuck yeah kind of night” is both imprecise (“kind of”), while also accurately evoking the kind of speaker who would say it. The cliché of burning a candle at both ends turns in on itself to introduce the idea of speaking, particularly the rise and fall of a voice (“intonations”). It’s a clever image that refers back to the title while simultaneously describing the flickering of a candle.
Throughout the book, however, there’s also a sense that this isn’t simply language play. In an interview with Divedapper, Xu, who was born in China and raised in the United States, talks about living between two languages. She says:
It’s like there are two bags of words in my head. Usually I’m able to retrieve the word or phrase I’m looking for in English, but sometimes it comes to me first in Chinese and I feel frustrated that maybe English doesn’t have an equivalent, or if there is one, I’m just not able to grasp at it at the moment.
The slippages in language, then, are partly play and partly an enacting of the kind of frustration that a multilingual person may experience in trying to communicate. Add to that the way immigrant experiences are politicized in American culture and Xu’s poems take on broader implications than many of her predecessors may have attempted.
In “Naturalism,” one of the standout poems of the collection, a sinister slip of language occurs. The line “I want my face to be blown on,” conjures an innocent light breeze, reflected in the nature of the title, but also the possibility that she could have written, and might have meant, “blown off.” Later in the poem, she writes:
This thought that lodges: venture capitalists
of America, kill yourselves
out in the blueberry barrens red
and purple mountains
and situating a view of wilderness upending sky
There’s another slip that happens after “kill yourselves”: is the speaker directing the venture capitalists to kill themselves in the blueberry barrens? Or has the poem shifted into a description of a natural landscape? Either way, we’re now forced to reckon with violence and beauty existing simultaneously. The end of the poem brings a kind of punchline: “So sensitive / subject positioning.” The final lines are:
To speak on intention it was mnemonic, bright star
was a calling back subtle
the image: almost asleep
blue phone ringing in the dark
Xu adds a new experience and influence to the New York School experiment, making explicit a politics that was implicit in her forerunners: “blue phone ringing in the dark” echoes Adrienne Rich’s “Telephone Ringing in the Labyrinth.”
Phrasis sits in a contemporary strain of lyric poetry with writers like Dara Wier, Jennifer Willoughby, and Hoa Nguyen, who selected Phrasis for Fence Books’ Ottoline Prize. These poets don’t purposely obscure, but the reader does have to keep up with the writer, whose mind is teasing out connections between ideas or following a sound or rhythm. Xu’s politics are more apparent than those of some other poets, adding satisfying layers to the work, and handling the tension of multilingualism in thrilling ways. Phrasis may only be Xu’s second book, but she is mature as a poet. Her next book will be a revelation.
Timothy Otte's poetry has appeared in or is forthcoming from Denver Quarterly, SAND Journal, Painted Bride Quarterly, Structo, and elsewhere. His other reviews can be found on Hazel & Wren and LitHub. Otte is from and lives in Minneapolis, where he works at Coffee House Press, but keeps a home on the internet: www.timothyotte.com