Book Review

“A well constructed fence is the best / thing in the known universe,” says the speaker in “Is That a Country or Just a Place,” the second poem in Wendy Xu’s boisterous and blazing debut full-length collection, You Are Not Dead. These lines seems hilariously ironic given that the speakers of Xu’s poems seem to have never meant a fence they didn’t want to leap over or a line they didn’t want to cross.

Bounding with energy, the poems in You Are Not Dead are like Jehovah’s Witnesses on amphetamines, beating down your door to tell you about The Word. Or a word. Or a whole bunch of words. Or maybe just to throw you a party that celebrates life and everyone’s eventual demise. In “And Then It Was Less Bleak Because We Said So,” we learn that “Today there has been so much talk of things exploding / into other things, so much that we all become curious, that we / all run outside into the hot streets / and hug.” Part of the appeal of Xu’s poems, and one of her strengths as a poet, is her attentiveness to the parts of speech. Her verbs are active, as they “explode” onto the page, and “hug” the reader.

The verbs Xu chooses to employ often times engage the reader in the action by including the senses, whether sight, sound, or touch. In “Like Whatever Makes You Not a Statue,” the speaker posits, “If you are an ocean then I think I am a music / video where everyone I know throws / a party.” Many of Xu’s lines leave the reader suspended between competing images and interpretations, accruing energy and unconsciously impelling the reader forward as they seek to untangle (sometimes unsuccessfully) the strange worlds of the poems. Hell, in “Of Dreams Where You Become a Suicidal Ceramic Fruit Bowl,” we learn that even “The apocalypse has a sense of humor and impeccable taste.” Xu’s personification of objects, events, and emotions seek to bring everything in the world into the poems, to make the argument that everything is worth seeing and thinking about. Throughout the book, it’s the poems’ breakneck pacing and lack of stanzas (on second look this reader counts only one poem that is not a single stanza) that suffuse each line and word with an energy that seeks to affirm the collection’s title. And its opposite. You are not dead. You are alive.

And yet, at times, I’m left wondering what all the strange and lovely imagery, the quirky tone, the frank openness of the speakers in these poems adds up to. The profusion of pronouns, the I’s, the you’s, the we’s that gambol through and in and out of the poems, that crave coffee and go to fairs and go to Iowa, keep the reader off-kilter and never sure of exactly who is speaking. It feels unclear whether one speaker inhabits multiple poems. Eventually this starts to get tiresome, like a Facebook friend who constantly “vaguebooks” about important happenings in their world—crises, triumphs—yet frustratingly never actually tells you what the event that has happened actually is. You wish the speaker would sit down in a chair, maybe have a drink, or smoke, just calm down for a moment.

But this is where the final section of the book saves the day. When the book begins, the speakers in the poems seem excited, naive, fun, and full of life. But as the book goes on, those speakers seem to coalesce into one damaged, jittery mind with a lot of confused voices, or a hundred voices from the future coming garbled over the static of an old radio. And so, by section six, the confusion of voices at times becomes a bit tiresome. This last section, with each poem titled, “We Are Both Sure To Die,” seems to finally bring the collection a sense of wholeness. Here, the rather bright tone of the book is painted in suddenly darker hues, and a sense of melancholy pours through the cracks, recasting the earlier parts of the book in their new light.

In the first poem of this final section, the speaker gives us:

An example
of your forgiving me is you still making
a movie about my life. Where I am played
by someone better looking. Give her some lines
of quiet but spectacular regret.

In another iteration of “We Are Not Dead,” “The sky opens up like / it is happy to see us. Here comes / some beauty. Eager and broken light.” A couple of poems later the speakers confesses, “Then I am terribly aware of being just one / person with a body.” And in the final poem in the collection, we again learn that “the most amazing part of waking up / is you are not dead,” shortly followed by the speaker hoping “my head / opens up like a rose.” This final line is the perfect metaphor for the collection, as by the time the reader gets to this final page, it certainly feels like the speaker’s or speakers’ or poet’s heads have opened up like some rare species of rose never before seen.

Perhaps what makes this last section work so well is the fact that the characters therein and their relationships to one another and themselves seem more stable and available to the reader. The language, the diction, and the imagery of this final section seem somehow more spare and streamlined as well, and it’s filled with amazing lines that cut deep. Perhaps more than anything else, this last section serves as the completion of the circuit or proposition set out by the title of the collection.  Just as reading the book serves as a sort of proof that “you are not dead,” life promises that we are all sure to die. And so, the frantic and rambunctious voice of You Are Not Dead seen through the lens of the final section of the book, seems to be saying, “Look! Look.” By attempting to catalog the strange and beautiful and mundane pieces of the world, Xu hopes to appreciate beauty all the more for its fleetingness. Ultimately, the reader who gives this book the time and patience it asks for will be rewarded with a unique view of those greatest of abstractions: life, death, and the world.

About the Reviewer

Nick DePascal lives in Albuquerque, NM with his wife and son and teaches at the University of New Mexico. His first collection of poems, Before You Become Improbable, was recently published by West End Press, and his poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Narrative, The Laurel Review, Interrupture, New Haven Review, Aesthetix, TAB, The Los Angeles Review, and more.