Eye Level by Jenny Xie - Review by Adam Fales
Graywolf Press - 2018 - $16.00 (USD)
Seeing always involves not seeing. Moments of sight are nothing without those moments of insight, when we look away from the world to mull things over and process what we’ve seen. Jenny Xie’s debut book Eye Level shows the myriad ways that thought and attention can impel, prevent, and distract vision, directing us both toward and away from the fragmented sights that form our conception of the world. The opening poem, “Rootless,” composes an overview of the interests that preoccupy Xie throughout Eye Level. In it, Xie narrates a poet’s wandering eye:
Between Hanoi and Sapa there are clean slabs of rice farms
and no two brick houses in a row
I mean, no three—
See, counting’s hard in half-sleep, and the rain pulls a sheet
over the sugar palms and their untroubled leaves.
The speaker moves from a description of houses next to rice farms, but an incorrect detail spurs her mind to take over, correcting herself from saying “no two brick houses” to “no three.” She revises her description and subsequently turns her sight inward. The ironic command to “See” brings us away from sight and instead to the “half-sleep” and “rain” that actually prevent her from seeing. "See" does not just tell you to see but also to comprehend, engaging the faculties that distract from vision in Xie’s poetry and enabling what doesn't appear to be there to be seen. In a visually dominant medium, print poetry, in a visually dominated culture where all one seems to do is look, often failing to see, these are critical subversions.
In this way, the command to “see” is almost always an ironic command to not see in Eye Level. In this repeated instruction, sight takes on a purely figurative meaning, in a way that blocks off the sense experience of vision. This diversionary playfulness begins in the collection’s epigraph, a quotation from Antonio Machado:
The eye you see is not
an eye because you see it;
it is an eye because it sees you.
The opening words afford two readings. They can read as “the eye [that] you see” but also “the eye[,] you see[,]” collapsing the distinction the actual object of sight and the command to see that object into one phrase. This double meaning was unavailable in Machado’s original Spanish line “El ojo que ves no es,” which only allows the former reading of the line. In this way, Xie’s use of the translation by Robert Bly linguistically enacts the kind of intersubjective interaction that Machado discusses in his poem. It is as though Machado’s language functions like an eye that is not only seen but also sees, coming to life and providing new perspectives as it translates to new contexts.
Xie explores these moments of creativity when the eye intersects with the outer world. After the initial poem, Xie uses a variety of forms and perspectives throughout the book. They are all tied together by the way our visual experience of the world enforces, challenges, and shapes our understanding of it. In these phenomenological investigations, the eye’s punning relation to our identity (the ‘I’) is what’s at stake. By combining vision and cognition in her unique way, Xie explores how the way we see the world constructs the way the world sees us.
Visuality so much informs Xie’s poetry that some of her poems follow visual art forms, as in “Phenom Pehn Diptych” and “Chinatown Diptych,” both of which paint cities and neighborhoods through impressions of two counterpoised scenes. Xie depicts a busy urban scene in “Chinatown Diptych”’s first half:
Here, there’s no logic to melons and spring onions exchanging hands.
No rhythm to men’s briefs clothes-pinned to the fire escape.
Retirees beneath the Manhattan Bridge leak hearsay.
The woman in Apartment #18 on Bayard washes her feet in pot of boiled
water each evening before bedtime. But every handful of weeks she lapses.
As with much of Xie’s poetry, these lines revel in their inability to capture every chaotic detail, which are ordered in any case by “no logic.” It’s not a documentary technique but rather impressionistic, granting specific instances that provide a sense of what’s scene. She moves rapidly from the singular “Manhattan Bridge” to the anonymous “woman in Apartment #18 on Bayard.” In the between of these two details, Xie’s double line break gestures to all the other unmentioned details, moments, and people that make up the city. Even the apartment number, 18, implicitly gestures to the prior seventeen apartments that we don’t see here. Putting that anonymous apartment “on Bayard” shows how many other streets full of similarly innumerable apartment buildings make up the full experience of this neighborhood.
In the diptych’s second half, Xie provides a sort of unity to the scene. Rather than the chaotic anonymity of Chinatown, the poem settles on synchronized movements and sensations that keep the city running:
Uncles tipple wine on the streets of Mott and Bayard.
Night shifts meet day shifts in passing.
Sweat seasons the body that labors.
And in each noodle shop, bowls dusted with salt.
For all the wine tippling, Xie reveals the labor that makes that leisure possible. The night and day crews even pass each other in a harmonious, almost choreographed, shift change. The visceral experience of these sweaty bodies finds its partner in the salt-dusted noodle bowls. But the sweat does not just match the salty and sensory experience: it also gestures toward the labor that put the salt there in the first place. Even though vision’s bare information hardly affords the depth of knowledge that reveals the labor system running New York City, Xie’s poetry shows how a second glance can reveal the world’s more intricate functions in surprising ways.
In a similar way, Xie shows that the sense experience of seeing something always involves the simultaneous experience of not seeing something else. Because the world offers up so many things to see, the decision to focus one object in your gaze draws your eyes away from the other objects that make up the world. In this way, Xie’s ample use of double line breaks and white space on her pages materially mimics our actual experience of the world. In the elegant and sparse “Visual Orders,” Xie plays with these ideas of visuality in short, numbered bursts:
The seductions of seeing ensure there is that which remains unseen. Evading visibility is its
own fortune. If to behold is to possess, to be looked upon is to be fixed in another’s sight,
static and immutable.
Xie connects the way that seeing something always involves not seeing something else to a more purposive sense in which sight averts itself in a way that structures identity. Being “fixed in another’s sight” holds all sorts of painful repercussions for bodies—those of women, people of color, and queer folk—that do not fit the normative gaze that’s doing the fixing. Rather than merely direct the oppressive gaze back at a normative body, Xie searches for a way to write toward all that happens when something is not the object of sight. “Evading visibility is its own fortune,” she writes, as the evasion of vision also entails the ability not to be static and remain mutable. All the segments of “Visual Orders” have the feeling of aphorisms that spring out of the page’s blankness—the space where language remains unseen. These often follow the form of commands, as in section : “Harvest the eyes from the ocular cavities.” But as they are numbered, these “Visual Orders” also become ordered, fit into a static list. In Xie’s poetry, language is a material and visual experience. We can only see her words after they’ve become static. We will never know the pre-visual experience of her poetic thought. She can only point toward it in a way that escapes the reader’s gaze:
Her gaze breaks each time
at the same place.
There is no reversing—
didn’t she know?
She has to go at it from the side.
She has to keep circling.
This thought closes “Visual Orders,” as Xie dramatizes sight’s repeated avoidance of its object. There is hope in this sort of indirection, as Xie gestures toward a certain understanding that can only be found in the constant circling: in the act of not seeing.
This is ultimately the sentiment on which Xie’s book rests. The penultimate poem “Ongoing” concludes: “She had trained herself to look for answers at eye level, / but they were lower, they were changing all the time.” “Eye level” is already a curious way to describe something. There is no one eye level; it’s always relational and depends on where the viewer is. Xie’s poetry searches beyond just relationality, trying to find the answers that exist outside it. I don’t know if she finds them, but she certainly points us much of the way.