Eye Level by Jenny Xie
Graywolf Press, 2018; 80 pages
Luisa A. Igloria
Poem as Viewfinder
A level, or spirit level, is a tool used by carpenters, builders, surveyors, and engineers. It was invented around 1661 by a French diplomat-scientist named Melchisédech (Nicolas) Thévenot—who was, owing to his wealth and connections, also something of a cartographer and traveler. His collection of travel accounts and maps of the Middle East were published in his Relations de Divers Voyages Curieux (Paris, 1663) and contain cartographic renditions of southern Iraq. Early forms of the spirit level were already used in classical times, when Romans filled tanks or bottles with water to determine the flatness or relative verticality of surfaces. Thévenot’s version was filled with mercury or a spirit of low viscosity such as alcohol; a bubble introduced into the tube helped to indicate the kind of surface it rested on.
The poems in Jenny Xie’s Eye Level work a little like a spirit level, in that they measure the constantly tilting surfaces of the worlds she traverses. There is plenty of movement in these poems—and Xie provides what readers will come to recognize as one of her signatures: long, telescoping views alternating with the precise close-up encounter. For instance, from the very first poem “Rootless,” we are
Between Hanoi and Sapa [where] there are clean slabs
of rice fields
and no two brick houses in a row.
Even when the expected blur accompanies movement, there is the unerring sense of guiding the eye back from the panoramic to the distinct:
…rain pulls a sheet
over the sugar palms and their untroubled
This method of seeing might seem detached, because of the constant oscillation between here and there. As a motorbike proceeds up the road, she notes that there is “a hog/ strapped to its seat,// the size of a date pit from a distance.”
Unlike Thévenot, Xie’s travels—from East Broadway to Hefei (where she was born) to Paris and Corfu and New Jersey (where she was raised) to Phnom Penh—are marked by an unmistakable immigrant ethos. She describes her position as a “[condition] of low visibility” (“Desire”); sometimes she is interrogated about whether or not she is “just passing through” (“Phnom Penh Diptych: Dry Season”), or asked to check the English and Chinese translations on a menu. Other immigrants like her also find their expectations of place unsettled by post-transit realities. In “Metamorphosis,” they’re forced by necessity to assume new, if shabbier, identities:
The wife crosses over an ocean, red-faced and cheerless.
Trades the pad of a stethoscope for a dining-hall spatula.
Their seasons alternate between thrift, sorrow, and the confusion of things lost in translation: in the poem “Naturalization,” a father confuses words in English and is perplexed by yard sales; he finds “the new country…ill fitting, lined/ with cheap polyester, soiled at the sleeves.”
The poem is the viewfinder directing the gaze to contrast and variety in these hybrid worlds she moves through. So many surfaces, both austere and sumptuous, to hold up to the self and its reflections—
After clocking out, a group of telecom man-
agers tear into durians.
Someone sweeps thick cockroaches from the
floor, someone orders oysters on ice.
Wooden spirit houses on the road to Kampot spray-painted gold,
capacious enough for a pot of incense, a rice bowl, and one can of Fanta.
~ “Phnom Penh Diptych: Dry Season”
Within such teeming, Jenny Xie offers the idea that solitude (those moments in which the gaze retreats into protection) and ecstasy (from the Greek ektasis, meaning to be taken outside oneself) could describe the two ends of a level between which the eye could find a place to rest.
Luisa A. Igloria is the winner of the 2015 Resurgence Prize (UK), the world's first major award for ecopoetry, selected by former UK poet laureate Sir Andrew Motion, Alice Oswald, and Jo Shapcott. Natasha Trethewey selected her manuscript What is Left of Wings, I Ask, as the recipient of the 2018 Center for the Book Arts Letterpress Poetry Prize. She is the author of the full length works The Buddha Wonders if She is Having a Mid-Life Crisis (Phoenicia Publishing, Montreal, 2018), Ode to the Heart Smaller than a Pencil Eraser (selected by Mark Doty for the 2014 May Swenson Prize, Utah State University Press), Night Willow (Phoenicia Publishing, Montreal, 2014), The Saints of Streets (University of Santo Tomas Publishing House, 2013), Juan Luna’s Revolver (2009 Ernest Sandeen Prize, University of Notre Dame Press), and nine other books. She teaches on the faculty of the MFA Creative Writing Program at Old Dominion University, which she directed from 2009-2015. www.luisaigloria.com