FINALIST FOR THE NATIONAL BOOK AWARD FOR POETRY
Winner of the Walt Whitman Award of the Academy of American Poets, selected by Juan Felipe Herrera
For years now, I’ve been using the wrong palette.
Each year with its itchy blue, as the bruise of solitude reaches its expiration date.
Planes and buses, guesthouse to guesthouse.
I’ve gotten to where I am by dint of my poor eyesight,
my overreactive motion sickness.
9 p.m., Hanoi’s Old Quarter: duck porridge and plum wine.
Voices outside the door come to a soft boil.
—from “Phnom Penh Diptych: Dry Season”
Jenny Xie’s award-winning debut, Eye Level, takes us far and near, to Phnom Penh, Corfu, Hanoi, New York, and elsewhere, as we travel closer and closer to the acutely felt solitude that centers this searching, moving collection. Animated by a restless inner questioning, these poems meditate on the forces that moor the self and set it in motion, from immigration to travel to estranging losses and departures. The sensual worlds here—colors, smells, tastes, and changing landscapes—bring to life questions about the self as seer and the self as seen. As Xie writes, “Me? I’m just here in my traveler’s clothes, trying on each passing town for size.” Her taut, elusive poems exult in a life simultaneously crowded and quiet, caught in between things and places, and never quite entirely at home. Xie is a poet of extraordinary perception—both to the tangible world and to “all that is untouchable as far as the eye can reach.”
Xie, winner of the 2017 Walt Whitman Award, strives to develop a poetics of observation in her debut, subtly reworking the documentary impulse familiar in much contemporary writing to create an alternative way to interrogate the experience of cultural otherness, outside the fraught framework of the lyric. The work exhibits much promise conceptually and is rife with feelings of loneliness, disorientation, desire, and complicity. For example, in her "Phnom Penh Diptych," Xie writes, "There's new money lapping at these streets./ Thirsts planted beneath the shells of high-rises." As the sequence unfolds, images accumulate and "the corners of the city begin to peel." Yet, rather than build tension and a sense of urgency, the observations continue to multiply as the speaker disappears among the work's shifting perspectives. The poems that take the greatest formal risks hold the highest stakes for both reader and speaker. Xie writes in "Captivity" that "I'd forgotten all about humiliation. And yet another month fattened, tightening at the seams." Though this piece also revolves around an interior drama, its prose form lends a much-needed sense of tension as the speaker's surroundings become part of her emotional topography. Amid Xie's sublime language and keen observations, "Disorder begins to flare" and some readers may wish for a deeper sense of immediacy.