(Omnidawn Publishing, 2013) 
In reading across Lyn Xu’s multitude of lyrical forms, attitudes, and syntactical styles in her first book, a drama of whom we speak as and who speaks through us emerges, troubling claims to responsibility for each utterance and construction. What begins in a desperately personal exhortation, “Say You Will Die for Me,” ends in the devouring fire: “A walking word / Hurrying back into fire” (92). As the disparate sections progress, the cosmopolitanism of the book becomes overburdened with its own references. And this serial drama is compounded in situ through the density of phrasing, often making it difficult to track the culmination of our social relationships that may seem as insubstantial as what an early poem narrates as the willful insubstantiality of language-as-prayer. Xu’s speakers repeatedly ask others to voice what is owed to them, leaving an incorrigible offering of poems “for” along the way. Pure avowal (“Our Love Is Pure”) seems as mute as death. The effect of these troubled appearances and occlusions of speakers is something like Bergson’s answer to Zeno’s paradox in Creative Evolution: the “life” or continuous movement of the arrow is describable not as a line but by what resists each attempt to arrest a moment with an idea. Negatively, we arrive at what flows through each successive position. The fiercely enjambed “Debts & Lessons” phrases this problem in terms of address: 

                  To whom am I speaking? From whom
                  Do I drift? Angel
                  Of the unmarked path
                  In you

                  The eyes of death did move

In directing speech to another while also noting its drift, the speaker both marks death’s look “in you” and shows how “I” describe the movement of a life by the people it passes by, through, or out of. Lynn Xu has a gift for directing each lyrical proposition towards indebtedness without cancelling the divergent, inaccessible burdens that show up in the saying. For Danielle Collobert, she leaves this lullaby: “One leaf touches another and not as comparison.” (63). In “Say You Will Die for Me,” the lines trace a dark movement as they pass through each incidental point, marking “only an idealized limit of a smaller and smaller presence. The heart / Which is an orgasm. A long dagger. The prayer exists / because it is positioned.” (13). There is simple, near threatening beauty in these lines that proceed under the pressure of some distant authority. Conversely, the heart seems light in these avowals and addresses because it can’t keep others constantly in mind. It can’t keep the places where we take our youth from, as in this line from “Enemy of the Absolute”: “The Mexico we are young from.” The syntax pivots into: “Faking our own deaths / As children, shaking our futures / Before your eyes.” (39). If this is nostalgia, it is as a problematic mimesis of past, culturally distant lives. Such mimesis hardly lessens the gravity of voided lives and feelings that the poems accrue, as in this ventriloquizing of her grandmother: “Lynn! The darkness in your pocket / Is catching up with me” (51). Part of the magic of this poetry, then, is to “warm” us over and over again with what returns as both familiar and inconceivable. Consider the syntax of this first poem in the section most indebted to Celan, “Earth Light”: “I hear eternity / Is self-forgetting. Interior warm with the nightmare of guests and poetry / And you. Everything darkly / Reverent years of reading about death eluded” (23). In this damp, sempiternal section, it is not private conversations we overhear but the unstable pronouns that constitute this “self-forgetting eternity.” Like T. S. Eliot’s Countess Marie Louise Larisch von Moennich, we can only hold on to resonances of sound and title: “Marie. Hold on tight” / Earth Light.” Yet what was for Eliot a compacted image of the fall of the Austro-Hungarian aristocracy becomes, in Xu’s deft hands, a way to figure utter human dislocation: “In the depths of outer space / Is man.” The successive shifts between distant avowal and nakedness come to feel ultimately like attempts to focalize, if not clarify, our attention among incongruent desires, inheritances, and near impossible figures. As the fourth poem in “Earth Light” proffers: “Decay / Lets on a hum. / Listen. / I have to screw / A little thing / I have to screw. All is / Moved by love. Homer, the sea.” (26). Responding to these “Debts” seems to demand not an aggrandizement of love’s power or the comfort of classical figures, but a radical contraction of attention—to locate this little thing I have to do, for “us,” before it is lost to allusion, death, or tide. 

                                                                        Christopher Patrick Miller 


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