Thursday, December 6, 2012

Epistolary Review: Debts & Lessons, Lynn Xu (Omnidawn 2013)

Dear R.,

I know you're generally unfond of poems about poetry but I think you'll rather like Lynn Xu's Debts & Lessons. Caveat lector, though. A lot of these poems are about the process of their own making; fortunately, they're also about other things. "The prayer exists," Xu writes,


because it is positioned. In that presence
wherein the heart is expressed. Wherein sound is incident to the heart
exists. I am not asking you to die for me. Say you will die for me. (13)

A parsimonious poet but not an ungenerous one, Xu presses declaratives to their limits, until they state more than facts, until they approach the quality of aphorism. Aphorisms are sometimes portentous (Ars longa, vita brevis) & sometimes light & witty ("Almost all absurdity of conduct arises from the imitation of those we cannot resemble.") ; Xu's most aphoristic lines run the gamut. The first section of a sequence called "Our Love is Pure" might give you a sense:


This autumn is a dream. I fell
Into the sea. Through the French trees. My heart
Became a suite in the Carlyle, compels you
To undress. (17)

This asymptote to aphorism is, at once, one of Xu's greatest strengths as a poet & also--because it's so distinctive--the thing that might blind you to some of the other things worth paying attention to in this collection. 

For one thing, there are the translations & bilingual poems of the "Night Falls" sequence, which marry English & Chinese characters in a way that emphasizes the kinds of deft maneuvering involved in any act of translation: "Maybe it is dishonest/This poem" (45), Xu writes, & then, later: "In the world/There is no pain, no loss, no dishonesty! No emptiness from exhaustion" (51). The world that a language can be to us--how easy it is, though--to find that world lost or changed, other than what you had thought it. 

In such a world--a world that is many worlds, a translated world--you might navigate by poetry--be guided & crushed by it at once--& this, in a way, is the real force of Xu's title: Debts & Lessons. The phrase comes from Marcus Aurelius; this is a collection that (quite literally) wears its literary inheritance on its sleeve. Look for Eliot ("Marie. Hold on tight" [23]), Shakespeare ("These pearls that were your eyes" [27]),  & Marlowe (I am not hell. Not dead. [31]) in paraphrase. There are others I'm not listing but that's the general idea.

When you read the section called "Lullabies," you'll find that this erudition becomes explicit. Each poem in this penultimate sequence is dedicated to a poet. Here's Shelley's lullaby:

For what offense
The grave drew near
No crew remembers me
I felt the final inch
Around my feet the sea
No more a child
Did take me for its bride. (57)

As you've probably already noted, Xu's poem offers us a version of the text of Shelley's death set in a sort of pseudo-Shelleyan tetrameter. Compare, for instance, this speech from Prometheus Unbound, Shelley at his most marine, most tetrametrical: 



A rainbow's arch stood on the sea,
Which rocked beneath, immovably;
And the triumphant storm did flee, 
Like a conqueror, swift and proud,
Between, with many a captive cloud,

A shapeless, dark and rapid crowd,
Each by lightning riven in half:
I heard the thunder hoarsely laugh: 
Mighty fleets were strewn like chaff
And spread beneath a hell of death
O'er the white waters. I alit
On a great ship lightning-split,
And speeded hither on the sigh
Of one who gave an enemy
His plank, then plunged aside to die.

Full of slant rhymes & allusions to the poet's premonitions of death by sea, Xu's lullaby is a tribute to Shelley's life (or death, really) & forms--often fused together by his admirers--& also an attempt to work through how those forms might be of use in the contemporary moment. It is, in short, an explicit acknowledgment of a debt & also a lesson of the variety classical rhetoric would call imitatio: the emulation or rescripting of some work of art meant to help the student understand how her source material works. Xu's poetic practice is, in many ways, predicated on imitatio, not as rote repetition, but certainly in contradistinction (ironically, perhaps, given her referent here) to the Romantic cult of originality. For Xu, craft matters a lot & part of what this collection wants to do is show you how craft is historical, how, in the end, originality, in its most diluted version, can be a bit of a canard, a way of dodging the past that you must labor in the knowledge of always. (The final sequence, about which I will say little, except that it comes the closest to being a confessional one, makes it very clear that this labor of remembrance is obscure, difficult, & constant: "Our blindness which poetry/Then forgave" [83]). I admit I find this way of thinking about craft refreshing in light of some recent posturing about the tyranny of the original, though I could see why you wouldn't. Debts. Lessons.

Reminded, suddenly, of a line in O'Hara's Ann Arbor Variations, which I had always thought of as more Homeric than Shelleyan but is of course both: "We are sick of living and afraid/that death will not be by water, o sea." But of course, O'Hara is also one of Xu's salutary tyrants. Her lullaby to him recalls his epistolary bent:


Dear Frank. I am writing you a letter with nowhere to send it. We've taken a room in San Felipe on the Calle de los Claveles. Separating the bedrooms are fifteen paces covering the length of our courtyard. Purple jacarandas seesaw above us and in the street, blouses dissolve like lozenges to release the natural color. At night we are carried out with our noses missing. (59)

Noses do go missing sometimes don't they. These days I mostly want to spend all my time indulging my own epistolary bent. I don't, of course. (Of course I don't.) But sometimes you find yourself sitting up a-nights, still waiting for December. Even when it's already begun. Pernicious habit, waiting, hard to stop once you've started. ("Bend not to my knowledge," Xu would say, "[f]or I have divided all my seasons with you" [66]). I just want to tell everyone I see: I am not asking you to wait for me! Say you will wait for me.

What are you waiting for?

(r)