Book Review

Imagine waking from a dream. You remember where you lived and the language you spoke, but as you regain consciousness, the certainty of that self slips away. Anni Liu’s poems take us to that middle space between a past version of one’s self and the present. Border Vista, winner of the Lexi Rudnitsky First Book Prize in Poetry, is a manual for surviving the transition.

Born in Xī’ān, Shănxī, Liu shows us a childhood in China that celebrates the outdoors: rain, flowers, fruit trees, a girl at play in the dirt and the grass. As a young girl in “The Story,” she is left behind by her mother:

Another time: me fevered for days, my mother gone,
my father took me to work. He spread couch cushions on the office floor for me to lie on,
asked me what I needed.
“Tell me a story,” I said.
He never told stories, but that day, he told me this:

What follows is blank space on the page. Liu writes, “It has a happy ending. The bunnies find their way home to their mother,” but we learn, “My mother never came back. Instead, I went to her, to Ohio and lead skies.”

Leaving China means Liu’s identity shifts, a loss she hides behind a veneer of patience. “Bĕijīng Aquarium” takes us to the glass wall of a dolphin tank just before she leaves China:

from the cloudy depth a blue curve emerges
and approaches the glass in all her blue
length and looks me in the eyes, her mouth open
as if in greeting, before diving back, corkscrewing
the water as she vocalizes something I recognize
as joy.

Liu is mesmerized by the dolphin’s interest, but her grandfather explains this is the animal’s job:

. . . She’s a performer,
Wàigōng tells me. All day she heaves her great weight
from the blue-dyed tank and into the air
of a thousand human beings cheering. We tell
ourselves when she opens her mouth, she is laughing,
and when she cries out, she is laughing.

What we interpret as the dolphin’s happiness, or at least consent, becomes a metaphor for Liu as she heads to the airport, away from her grandparents, and to the United States. On the plane, “The American attendants stroll down the aisle / to greet me. Within my silence, I smile and smile.”

This is a book about maintaining a sense of self while navigating changes that strip away who we are and where we come from. This is also a book about violence. In “Solstice” and other poems, Liu compels us to witness psychological and physical abuse she suffers at a partner’s hands. She invokes the goddess Demeter, whose daughter was carried off by the god of the underworld, to frame her mother’s worry:

                        . . . I read the classics
and try not to think of Demeter when my mother calls
            asking what every mother asks—come home—
                        especially when the man is older, has a son,

keeps her daughter in the woods
            of a faraway place.

On the phone, “I say everything / except his sudden rage, the spit he aimed / at my face that he didn’t mean, didn’t mean.”

We gain more relationship insight in the title poem, “Border Vista,” where Liu’s partner and his son venture across the U.S./Canada border, ignorant to their privilege. Liu writes:

            once he and his
bright towheaded
            boy like a blond alarm

cross it without

            (and this is the part
            of the story I find
            most unbelievable)

            when they turn back
toward home       two barrel-

chested officers wait
on the track

            after a few minutes’
            questioning being
            white Americans
            they are free to go

Her partner’s unawareness of the threat such an act would present to Liu leaves her fantasizing about running away, over the border:

knowing I would not
            be able to come back
            if I did

but dying         to be somewhere

In several poems, Liu wanders in a messy space between sleep and reality, including “Hypnogogia,” where winged creatures pummel a home, fighting to claim it as their own. We hear “crows hacking at the house with beak and claw” while starlings and swallows nest in the crevices. In this chaos, birds care for each other while Liu cares for her hostile partner:

When the baby swallows hatch, every adult swallow in the colony takes turns bringing
food up from the field.

I take a cup of coffee up to his office, every step loud as a shot in the hollow parts of the
house. The light from the window limns the doorway & when I knock I can hear him sigh.

Though the confusion of childhood immigration and the dark violence of domestic abuse make this collection somber, this pain is tempered by the quiet bliss of a later happy relationship and meditative moments tending to herbs growing on a porch, picking crabapples, watching deer in the woods at night.

As I neared the book’s finish, I kept flipping to count how many poems I could still enjoy because I didn’t want Liu’s writing to end. Border Vista is a collection to treasure whether you’ve had Liu’s experiences or not, whether you possess her deep thoughtfulness about the natural world or you simply enjoy spending time among trees. In “连翘,” pronounced lián qiáo, or “forsythia,” Liu takes us to the tree canopies of her hometown Xī’ān to explore how time shifts childhood memories, with real and imagined experiences overwriting one another, often to beautiful ends:

For years after I left 西安
I mistook honeysuckle
for 连翘 and gave its nectared

scent to my weeping native
plant, which is itself scentless.
This kind of false attribution
has its uses. Pushing my face
into a feathery spray, it is spring
in 西安 and the air is blossoming

                                    with rain—

About the Reviewer

Ann Amicucci teaches writing at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs. You can connect with her on Twitter at @AnnNAmicucci