Jenny Xie, The Rupture Tense (Graywolf), 120pp. Paperback, $17.00.
In 2019, after living in the United States for thirty years, poet Jenny Xie traveled to China and visited the place where she was born, seeing relatives from whom she had become somewhat estranged—or, if not estranged, perhaps defamiliarized. (Xie had left China at the age of four.) “It was a complicated experience,” she said in an interview with Maggie Millner, “and one thing that came out of it was an understanding of how much would disappear—memories, knowledge, textured impressions, life—when my older relatives pass on.”
Xie’s second book of poems, The Rupture Tense (Graywolf), largely results from this new understanding. In one standout poem, “Reaching Saturation” (first published as an excerpt in The Yale Review this past June), she describes her own you-can’t-go-home-again feeling:
In your alogical ways, you make a foolish bargain:
you ask to be a native again—naïve
as you are, with steadfast eyes.
Some knavery in desire, some echo.
Her nostalgic wish to return isn’t illogical but alogical: nothing should be easier than to reinhabit a familiar home, and yet we all know that it’s impossible. (“No part of my self had remained,” she writes in another poem, “but no part had withdrawn either.”) Too much intercedes between childhood and adulthood. To be native, to resume one’s nativity, is to return to one’s naivete—it requires one to become a knave, to adopt the trickery that allows one to hear an echo as original (to address oneself in the second person). Xie’s play on the enjambed “naïve” encapsulates the dilemma—you ask to be naïve again, and the desire only reveals your current naivete. Your disappointment is an echo of the frustrated desires of youth.
The difficult movement of time is key for Xie. “The present tense gets close, but doesn’t enter me,” she wrote in “No Animal,” a poem from her first poetry collection, Eye Level (Graywolf, 2018). That volume, a finalist for the National Book Award, was largely about looking and being looked at—the relation between steadfast eye and steadfast I, between beholding and being held. Now, in Rupture Tense, she has found a way to articulate what the movement of time does penetrate, how it frustrates our longing to see the big picture.
The title Rupture Tense also plays on the cultural divide that Xie negotiates; her native language was Mandarin Chinese, which does not have a past or future tense. Having emigrated to the United States at such a young age, Xie has remarked that her Mandarin skills have substantially deteriorated. (As a poet, she composes solely in English.) Xie suggests that she occasionally relied on Google Translate when in China, her putative fluency failing to establish a smooth fluidity from past to present.
These personal experiences are on display in the long title poem, but the book begins with a series of ekphrastic poems (most titled “Red Puncta”) on the photography of Li Zhensheng (1940–2020). Xie’s time in China was partly made possible by a fellowship at NYU Shanghai, where she came across these images, an enormous cache of contraband snapshots of punishments and executions long kept hidden from official eyes. Zhensheng, as she has claimed, “is responsible for perhaps the most complete photographic archive of the Chinese Cultural Revolution” of the 1960s and ’70s. How, her poems seem to ask, is resistance to the state censorship of Mao’s China related to the struggle to overcome the personal failures of memory?
Xie was especially curious in Zhensheng’s images because her own family possesses few photographs from the era of the Cultural Revolution. While residing in China, she feels the presence of family secrets that are kept from her. She wants to learn more about her family’s history, but she also knows that the exposure of a secret can be a form of oppression. Poets and critics like to look closely for hidden details, but this tendency is not always conducive to human flourishing: “To be cleared of meaning,” Xie fantasies in one of the “Red Puncta” poems, “a kind of freedom only the opaque can claim.”
Xie reminds us, in other words, that memory is not the same as history—that “memory pulls the past out of its outlines and stuffs it back in all the wrong spaces.” (“And so we get sewn / back into / our origins.”) Memory is more personal than history; history may be about us, but memory is us. Li Zhensheng, in Xie’s characterization, may have been a photojournalist, but more importantly he was a “memory soldier.”
In a glowing review of Eye Level from 2018, The New Yorker’s poetry critic Dan Chiasson had praised Xie as “a magician of perspective and scale.” He suggested that the central irony of Xie’s work was that it announces itself as superficial (“eye level”) but is actually focused on depth, on the vast unseen. As in Eye Level, her poems in The Rupture Tense trouble any simple sense of subjectivity. Xie herself becomes unstable, in motion, “more verb than subject.” She finds kinship with Fernando Pessoa, the Portuguese modernist poet known for creating over a hundred different author-personalities or “heteronyms”—less a person himself than a physical body through which thoughts might find their expression.
Xie has remarked upon “the false binary of interior/exterior.” This may refer to subjectivity, but it also applies to her poems. There are no clear borders here, no rigidly arranged lines and stanzas. Instead, lines overflow, double back, pause, retract, redact, and then surge and “spill over an unarticulated margin.” The book itself struggles to find an ending, refusing any sort of tidy conclusion. The final poem, unlisted in the Contents, is “Alternate Endings,” a secret bonus track that gradually increases the space surrounding the lines like a dwindling series of afterthoughts. “When winter comes around, your pages fall open,” Xie declares, the white emptiness framing the line like an overnight snow—“And you, all future tense, leak through.”