cover image Eye Level

Eye Level

Jenny Xie. Graywolf, $16 trade paper (80p) ISBN 978-1-55597-802-0

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. (Apr.)