Book Review

On a fundamental level, Wendy Xu’s The Past depicts the author’s dexterous mind in action as it grapples with the slippages, difficulties, and stark unknowability of the past. Xu’s poems depict the past—the book’s ever-present subject—as a semi-tangible object, markedly vexed by presence and absence. The past, for Wendy Xu, never makes itself fully present to the living subject but, by the same gesture, never fully withdraws. The Past presents sequences of poems that discuss the author’s personal and cultural histories and the ways that political and linguistic tensions followed Xu and her family as they emigrated from China to the U.S. in June of 1989, three days before the Tiananmen Square Massacre. This collection—the author’s third—shifts between experimental writing and the realm of more traditional lyric poetry. Through poetic form, these twists within genre underscore the fact that the past is never experienced as an abstract value, but always through a phenomenological subject who parses the personal and political past via the medium of language.

Xu presents the past—or her past, the distance between “her” and “the” encompassing in two small words, pronoun and article, many of the text’s anxieties about how to conceptualize history—as something that is material and present at hand: bodies and the sites they occupy; aging parents residing in a world full of traffic circles, nectarines, and shirt sleeves. In a linked series of introspective lyric poems near the collection’s end, Xu meditates on her uncle’s recent death and the way it saturates the textures of everyday life. In the final lines of “Poem Beginning to Sound,” she writes, “Old books begin to bore me, their yellowing answers / . . . / and Uncle in my mind turning always / like the last abundant word.” It is fitting that the poem ends with a nod to speech, as language is key to Xu’s understanding of the material past.

In a mirroring gesture, the collection begins and ends with poems that explore the difficulties that come with occupying a space of cultural and linguistic otherness. In the lyric tradition, Xu addresses many poems to the pronoun “you,” evoking the linguistic space that stands between a subject and the other(s) to whom speech is addressed. Near the collection’s end, on one of the untitled pages that compose the serial poem “Notes for an Opening,” Xu ponders:

The question of where and among whom do I feel most unabashedly myself
That is, where am I most contrasted with others?
An immigrant dreams of total assimilation as both fantasy and nightmare
The abstraction of my self-remembrance.

Vexations over the lure and threat of cultural assimilation hang heavy over The Past, ranging from the mild—Xu exasperatedly listening to her father translate her English-language poems over into Chinese on the phone—to the severe, as Xu depicts her family having struggled to acclimate themselves to English-speaking culture.

Social interactions are intrinsically mediated through language and, for the immigrant and the other, public language can intimidate or threaten and result in cultural isolation. Xu nods throughout the collection to the English language’s “Alien words and the velocity / in all directions / with which they find you.” Poetry itself stands as one of the few spaces reserved for a purely private language, one in which the demeaning eyes of an external public do not exist. In the poem “A Sound Not Unlike a Bell,” Xu considers the audience of a private text:

Where is the song finally trained upon me?
Not among the neon signage at night
This poem is not for you
I only promised to approach the opening and let my tenses slip generously wide
This is where I come to be alone with words
I belly up to the sentence and live to construct this house for the vocal dead.

The poem shapes private space where the poet and her collage of “vocal dead” may meet in peace without being subjected to an external gaze.

Xu contrasts these semi-private concerns with the outward-facing public fact of China’s brutal crackdown on pro-democracy protestors in the late 1980s that culminated in the massacre in Tiananmen Square. In fact, in a darkly ironic way, the massacre itself is semi-private, as Chinese authorities have spent the last three decades denying the state-sponsored violence and repressing any mention in literature, art, and popular media. The central section of the book bears the title “Tiananmen Sonnets”; the untitled poems depict the author wrestling with complex feelings for having left her one-time homeland only three days before a major crisis. Although—as Xu observes—at two years old, she could not have understood the massacre’s significance. In one sonnet, she writes,

Flight attendants are kind
to the Chinese baby
wrapped in petroleum fleece
. . .
Just down below some protestors disappear
during beverage service, gone so soon

whispered in a hush
Not life but deathlessness.

Late poems in the “Tiananmen Sonnets” sequence feature little to no language and comprise small, jagged sections of gray ink, presenting a grim tribute to the ongoing silencing that surrounds the Tiananmen Square events in China.

In the “Tiananmen Sonnets” and throughout The Past, Xu allows the formless past—or, more accurately, the multi-formed past, ever-shifting in its ever-present materiality—to proliferate without settling, mixing personal lyric with public redaction and erasure to create a manuscript that exists in a space of hybrid identity and form, dependent on memory while fully aware of memory’s slippages and subjectivity. In the narrow space between the “you” and “I” of the poems, Xu places memory and presence in dialogue and leaves open a gap from which “a voice from the past / says surface.”

About the Reviewer

Connor Fisher is the author of The Isotope of I (forthcoming winter 2021 from Schism Press—Neuronics) and four poetry and hybrid chapbooks. He has an MFA from the University of Colorado at Boulder and a Ph.D. in Creative Writing and English from the University of Georgia. His poetry has appeared in journals including Denver Quarterly, Random Sample Review, Tammy, Oxidant|Engine, Tiger Moth Review, and Clade Song. He currently lives and teaches in northern Mississippi.