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 herecolors, smells, tastes, and changing landscapesbring 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 perceptionboth to the tangible world and to “all that is untouchable as far as the eye can reach.”
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Between Hanoi and Sapa there are clean slabs of rice fields and no two brick houses in a row.
I mean, no three —
over the sugar palms and their untroubled leaves.
the size of a date pit from a distance.
No matter. The mind resides both inside and out.
I sponge off the eyes, no worse for wear.
At present, on this sleeper train, there's nowhere to arrive.
"when the natives see you, the tourist, they envy you, they envy your ability to leave your own banality and boredom ..."
— Jamaica Kincaid
The ease with which a place becomes an entry:
Smell of my lateral gazing Reach of the outsider's extravagant need
While I listened for the dialects While I hunted down the night markets' chewed lips
Authentic encounters executed just so
Beauty kept simple and numbness hot The contrast and the rot in the air are merciful
PHNOM PENH DIPTYCH: WET SEASON
August, chambered. City of a million young faces.
A woman perches sidesaddle on a motorbike.
And how combed through, this rain!
The riled heat reaches the river shoal before it reaches the dark.
* * *
There's new money lapping at these streets.
Norodom Boulevard, flanked by stale bulbs,
In the backseat of a gold Lexus
Fixtures: slack lips of suitcases, lukewarm showers up to three times in a day.
An hour before midnight, the corners of the city begin to peel.
How do eyes and ears keep pace?
* * *
The zippered notes of bike engines enter through an opening in my sleep.
My dreams sputtering out because of this.
It's useless to describe the slurry of humidity or the joy of a fistful of rice cradled in curry, but it's not that I'm at a loss for words.
Every day I drink Coca-Cola and write ad copy.
Today, it's whitening face lotion, whitening foam wash, whitening sunscreen.
* * *
Desire makes beggars out of each and every one of us.
A man whose outline I know dives into a rooftop pool.
Wanting falls around me. Heavy garment.
After clocking out, a group of telecom managers tear into durians.
And now that the daylight turns viscous, a new wife buckles limbs with a foreign lover at the Himawari Hotel.
Someone sweeps thick cockroaches from the floor, someone orders oysters on ice.
Even the rain sweats, unkempt like the rest of us.
* * *
I enter Wat Langka to sit.
On the screen: glow of missives.
Friends with pressed collars riding elevators.
The stock market will dive spectacularly,
I'm still where I am, in conditions of low visibility.
The irony of the White Building is lost on no one.
I've lived across from it, walked past neighbors gambling on Nokia phones held together by elastic bands and grandmothers fanning coals to smoke fish.
For my own apartment, I paid too much.
You could say moving here was a kind of hiding.
The compass needle points to where nothing begins.
Yes, I'm tired of laundry soured by mildew.
This lonesomeness turning over
* * *
Rainwater mars the tin roofs,
How long will it be like this?
The tourists curate vacation stories,
Killing Fields tour, Sambo the elephant in clotted street traffic,
How the viewfinder slices the horizon —
It knows little of how banality accrues with no visible evidence.
I wake up one morning to find beauty suspect.
Outside, a vendor hacks at a slab of ice while two teenaged boys wait for bags of crushed sugarcane juice on matching motorbikes.
These commonplace nouns.
A rain that chases
PHNOM PENH DIPTYCH: DRY SEASON
Motorbikes darting. Nattering horns leave an aftertaste.
* * *
For years now, I've been using the wrong palette.
I've gotten to where I am by dint of my poor eyesight,
9 p.m., Hanoi's Old Quarter: duck porridge and plum wine.
Voices outside the door come to a soft boil.
I sweat over plates of pork dumplings and watery beer.
Can you fix this English?
the Chinese restaurant owner asks, pushing a menu toward me.
The men here chew toothpicks like uncles on both sides of my family.
I translate what little I can, it's embarrassing.
Just passing through?
My guilt goes off,
For whom does it return?
All I do is recede from the view of those at my back.
Heeding only the tug of the interior.
It's not about the snare of need, though I forget why I came.
Perhaps it's shallow sleep in the subtropics,
I wring them out.
I want to remember this, though not with wistfulness.
The city warms its tongue by not saying anything.
* * *
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.
Noon, white hour.
The outlines of bungalows in the distance — impossible to part the seen and unseen. What's here and what isn't.
The language behind this language cracks open, and my questions follow suit.
Months of medium-rare insomnia.
Wine makes me confuse
There goes the moon, hardening on a hot skillet.
All that is untouchable as far as the eye can reach.
* * *
I thought I owned my worries, but here I was only pulled along by the needle of genetics, by my mother's tendency to pry at openings in her life.
Calls made from a booth where one pays by the minute.
I fail to mention the bite of my mistakes,
No, I didn't travel here for the lawlessness.
I developed an appetite for elsewhere —
Beauty, too, can become oppressive if you let it,
If you stay long enough,
* * *
I kept twisting my face in bar bathrooms,
And the years here —
Men and women came and went.
* * *
I knelt to the passing time.
To the north and to the west: dark tips of cypress. Corfu in the slow math of July, and this reservoir of fear running low. The island has two hard-boiled hills. The bus descends one of them, blaring folk ballads. Houses the color of custard, some burnt. A Greek Orthodox monastery where even female cats can't enter. I've never set foot on this island before, but all day a familiar version of this self insists like a plain sweat stain against my back.
Pickpocketed days ago in France, all my dollars and euros gone. Yesterday, I landed in an airport so small I could see from one end to the other.
I've grown lean from eating only the past.
One line through customs, and the plane impossibly close to the sea. No ceremony in any of it.
The woman by the soap stand with the low neckline is beside herself. Ecstasy, from the Greek ekstasis, meaning to stand outside oneself. Estranged. In Kerkyra, beneath chalky sun, I put down coins for ice coffee and a taste of kumquat liqueur. Her crying jags force me into attention.
Pain with solidity displaces. Joy to be sloughed, to be stranger to oneself. These patterns of movement are ancient. Later, in the harbor, the boat guide tells me that long before the debt crisis, fishermen on the island fled into the watery caves to escape their wives.
Crumbled rust on boat metal. In order to dock the boat, the fisherman throws all his weight against the line.
The Old Fortress in Corfu Town rests on a promontory, with Albania's mountains legible to the east. In the sixteenth century, the Venetians dug a moat to protect the fortress from the Turks. Today there's no sign of disorder, only the white sailboats of the rich moored in the quay like grains of rice.
Here, I am a face unknown, which swells my appetite for this island. Climb alone to the top to look down on pit-colored roofed verandas, the olive and the scrub. Doubtless our lives are solitary, but also the inverse.
On the bus ride back, we pass a store named Ni Hao, selling pelts. Hello in all directions.
Eavesdropping on a mother needling at her mule-brained son
stopping by the side of the road to examine the dry socket of Agios Georgios
the root of this self-denial is long all those years I was spared of seeing myself through myself
Now the stifling days disrobe distance giving autonomy the arid space to grow
I'll rinse later this afternoon in the sea then compose lines to you of reasonable length
to say the opening you left is wide enough for me but I'm stunned to love aloneness
OLD WIVES' TALES ON WHICH I WAS FED
The number of rice grains left in your supper bowl foretells how many pockmarks will appear on your lover's face
Sleeping on your back will flatten your head's shape but sleep on your stomach and you'll induce nightmares
Eating the fat inside the crab sharpens the mind so too with roe extracted from a steamed fish
Never let your feet touch cold water from the bathtub or the sea on days when you're menstruating
Pinch the nose before age six when the cartilage is pliable so the nasal bridge will grow narrow and high
Drift asleep with your hair wet and you'll suffer from decades of migraines
You'll wreck your eyesight poring over pages in low light but looking at all things green from a distance can coax it back
Times when I think a mind uncluttered with others is the only condition for gentleness
or that memory sticks like cartilage to the meat of those with the most words.
Yet I know we can hold more in us than we do because the body is without core
and when I can no longer keep dividing the odds are in my favor to strike it out alone.
Seeing the collars of this city open I wish for higher meaning and its histrionics to cease.
If only the journey between two people didn't take a lifetime.
Sunday, awake with this headache. I pull apart the evening with a fork. White clot behind the eyes.
Someone once told me, before and after is just another false binary. The warmed-over bones of January. I had no passport. Beneath the stove, two mice made a paradise out of a button of peanut butter.
Suffering operates by its own logic. Its gropings and reversals. Ample, in ways that are exquisite. And how it leaves — not unlike how it arrives, without clear notice.
These days, I've had my fill of Chinatown and its wet markets. Gutted fish. Overcooked chattering. The stench making me look hard at everything.
Summer mornings before the heat has moved in. Joy has been buried in me overnight, but builds in the early hours. My attention elastic.
The babbling streets of Causeway Bay, out of which the sharp taste of the city emerges. Nothing can stay dry here. The dark cherries of eyes come and go, as they please.
Let there be no more braiding of words. I want a spare mouth.
My father taught me wherever you are, always be looking for a way out: this opening or that one. Or a question. Sharp enough to slice a hole for you to slip through.
Long car trips where I sat in the back of our family's used Nissan. The stale odor of plush seats and sun-warmed cola. My parents' and my words do not touch. I grow adept at tunneling inward, a habit I have yet to let go of.
I am protective of what eyes cannot pry open. The unannounced. The infinite places within language to hide.
A Zen priest once told me that without snagging on a storyline, the body can only take loss for ninety seconds. The physical body has its limits, is what I heard. The imagination can break through them.
Boiled peanuts. Leather of daybreak. Cotton thinning out into thread. Dried vomit. Ice water from the spigot. The sacred and profane share a border. In the desert, small droppings of unknown origin.
Even when I was young, I loved peering at faces in films. The pleasure of watching and of not being watched.
Black koi fish open their mouths at the skin of the pond for oxygen. At the edge of the water, I hold two lines from Ikkyu in my mouth. Make my way slowly.
Nights when I shared a bed in a small room. Another's body to the left, hooked by a heavy dream.
Funny, the way we come to understand a place by wanting to escape it.
I can shake out the imprint of my body on the sheets each morning. Harder to shake out the mind.
When I was four, I ate spoonfuls of powdered milk straight from the canister. The powder was sweet. There wasn't enough money for fresh milk. Seven hundred years ago, Chang Yang-hao wrote, All my life seems / like yesterday morning.
ALIKE, YET NOT QUITE
After Li Shangyin
Thin fish bones arranged on the bone plate, a bracelet Blushing after wine and high sun The Buddhist nun, like a tipped glass, emptying through the mouth Smell of shadows in both March and October Solitude and coarse wanting, wedged stubbornly The railway conductor's face, blank as the underside of a river Paper gown at the gynecologist's office, onion skin, easy to part Unhurried, the knife against the vegetable or the meat Astonishment of being left and of choosing to leave
LUNAR NEW YEAR, 1988
Doors plastered with red paper cutouts so that the oncoming year passes these houses by.
Sweep out the insistent winter.
Make what you will out of ritual —
* * *
Grain alcohol in a thimble glass.
The wife bleaches out the urine smell from the bathroom tile while suffering the clean cuts of an insult.
And the husband?
This year, a cluster of buildings in Hefei grew more buildings.
* * *
Everyone is pleased by a story of plenty.
The husband and the brother-in-law remove every item from the refrigerator and arrange it all on the old card table for a Kodak photo.
It's the first point-and-shoot in the neighborhood.
One bottle of artificial mango drink for show.
It says: we are sated, but the watercress and the pork are unending.
Frugality and daily rationing cropped out.
The camera neuters the present, so what becomes past cannot breed.
* * *
Envelopes arrive from a university overseas,
The husband will go first. He purchases the family's only suitcase.
Already he knows when he boards the plane this city will appear small, as will his life.
His clothing, moreover, will mark him as someone who had to earn his way.
* * *
Even what hasn't yet cracked into being can at any time exert its pull.
The whole neighborhood emerges at dusk.
Wakefulness drawn from the red applause of firecrackers.
In the alleyway of my childhood home,
At my back:
Excerpted from "Eye Level"
Copyright © 2018 Jenny Xie.
Excerpted by permission of Graywolf Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Unspoiled Fictions 5
Phnom Penh Diptych: Wet Season 6
Phnom Penh Diptych: Dry Season 13
Old Wives' Tales on Which I Was Fed 25
Solitude Study 26
Alike, Yet Not Quite 30
Lunar New Year, 1988 31
Chinatown Diptych 37
Origin Story 41
Private Property 43
Invisible Relations 44
Visual Orders 46
No Animal 51
Square Cells 54
Exit, Eve 60
The Hunt 64
To Be a Good Buddhist Is Ensnarement 66
Déjà Vu 69
Letters to Du Fu 70
A Slow Way 72
Long Nights 74