Book by JINJIN XU
Reviewed by NOOR QASIM
JinJin Xu’s first chapbook, There is Still Singing in the Afterlife (Radix Media, 2020), collects twelve poems of multivarious forms, charting equally vast emotional territory–from birth to death, from one language to another, through words and subjects that are too dangerous to be said or written. This expansive collection demands a nimble, heightened attention and rewards the reader with language of great texture and depth. I first came to know Xu as an undergrad and it was a distinct pleasure to be challenged again by her work, to feel the push and pull of the poet engaging and rejecting her reader.
Two poems here, both entitled “To Red Dust,” are excellent examples of this tension, this heightened attention Xu requires of her readers. The first “To Red Dust” depicts piercing scenes of love and family life—an ever-shifting triangle of mother, father, and daughter and the role of their bodies therein. Both parents experience illness, and then, the daughter goes through puberty:
This is not the first trip people have mistaken me as my
father’s lover. Two Beds, he and I stress, when they write down
our shared name. The first time it happens, we are on a
beach in Bali. I am fourteen and just beginning to feel okay in t
he bathing suit stretched tight across my chest. My father
goes to the bathroom and leaves me haggling with the surf-
shack men. Your Boyfriend? They wink.
I stutter, blood rushing upwards, pooling in my head.
“Two beds, he and I stress,”—a way of saying without saying, a futile attempt to foreclose a wrong way of seeing that makes an embarrassment of familial closeness.
This discomfiting anecdote is followed by one of several references to Mona Hatoum’s Measures of Distance, a piece by the Palestinian artist which overlays video of Hatoum’s mother in the shower with Arabic text and the sound of her mother’s letters read aloud in English. The interjections of Hatoum’s piece, preceded always by “[STATIC],” ask the reader to operate, instead, as a viewer of imagined film. At points the viewer sees (“She pulls the viewer close/ too close to see properly/ this itself is erotic.”), hears (“The words: I don’t know what you mean/when you talk about the gap between us.”), and dissolves (“The viewer gives up her own sense of separateness”). One feels this dissolution to be true—through these [STATIC] interludes, we become the speaker and the speaker us, the image we see nothing more than an extension of ourselves.
Yet Xu also frustrates the identification of reader (or viewer) with speaker by turning back to the family’s own specific barriers, the ways language and custom create fissures the speaker must work to heal. In the first “To Red Dust,” “[t]he Forbidden Word,” (presumably love), “cries to her mother who does not hear/ her, because she does not exist in the language of this/ household.” To communicate the sentiment in words, the speaker must “say The Forbidden Word to my parents in a different language tracing its etymology back to the stories they were once told,” making connections between her new language of English and “where they came from/who they were.” Xu communicates both the frustration and the beauty of relating to family across languages as clearly as she does the great rupture of puberty, or the narrow chasm between mother and child.
The second “To Red Dust,” which first appeared in this magazine, is a more explicitly political poem. Like the first, it orients and then disorients the reader in time and space. The first three sections are preceded by place and date designations (such as “Hong Kong, 2019”) providing context for scenes of worship and protest. But these designations are progressively replaced by absences in the form of empty brackets, and the scenes themselves slip into a between state, some place between life and death. “I am still alive, hold on,/ I beg, as if I know what this earth is made of,” Xu writes, and then, “we are on the mountain of eternity, my mother &/ my father eating fresh peaches.” To look at these pages is to gaze into a liminal space, the poem’s meaning residing somewhere in the middle of the English stanzas, the vertical Chinese quotations, and their translations. For a reader like myself, limited only to English, the experience of reading this poem is defined by either turning one’s head or turning the book, a rather literal re-orientation that may recreate some of the shifting between and within languages articulated by the speaker.
Even the chapbook’s very first poem, a space where Xu might orient the reader in order to later challenge this orientation, is not so simple. “There They Are,” appears at first to be a beautiful, yet relatively straightforward exploration of a life’s first moments: “In the beginning,/my cry breaks my father, who flushes red at my fall, opens my face in search/of his mother.” But this is not just a poem about birth—the speaker is clearly concerned with what it even means to begin, eager to complicate the linearity of time and page:
There, stretch the canvas, spread oil thin-thin
into our crevasses, what’s that in the distance? No mother,
not the moon, just six hands bent over a clock face with no opening,
porcelain spoons raised to another’s lips, tap-tap we widen
our insides until ink forks our edges. In the beginning,
an October without night. Windows torn
open with flashlights. Hawthorn dawning a mother’s last breath.
Let me begin again,
The poem culminates with a comma, ending on an inhale, preparing the reader to dive into a very different piece, “Night People,” of jarring formal contrast. Black ink pages, boxes of light and dark, varied levels of shading, and words running off into darkness unfinished, all bring texture to the spare text. The appearances of the words “open” and “close,” “on” and “off,” shift the color of text and page, like a light switch. A child explains: “they are teaching me a new language ma mi/ turn off they say you turn off lights.” While each word (open/close, on/off) can effectively indicate a change in the room from light to dark, the child grapples with the conceptual shift required by a new language, incorporating the constraints of what is deemed correct and what is not. In capturing and disrupting the rhythms of the nighttime routine, a space of comfort and familiarity, the poem allows the reader to sit firmly between these languages, shifting between light and dark, challenging us to grasp the words on the page, to read and read again.
But why read, and read again? Why constantly reorient, perpetually shift perspective? Perhaps the practice can prepare us for an even greater shift—the experience of mourning, or the acceptance of death. This connection is most explicit in the poems “To Her Brother, Who Is Without Name,” and “To Your Brother, Who Is Without Name,” pieces Xu has called “the heart of the book.” In the first, a parallel column to the running text seems, like the on/off switch of the lights in “night people,” to serve as a switch between “Alive/not alive,” allowing the speaker to register the loss of a boy “born split/by a mother’s longing.” That switch seems to mimic the perpetual disbelief of grief, the imagination that refuses to register the one who is lost as gone:
he rides the bus
he rides the bus
away, from leaving
from going home
go home because he not alive
because he not alive
will not go—
In allowing these two streams of thought to coexist, Xu embraces grief’s willful persistence, finding within it not denial, but a new life for the one who is mourned. Even though he is not alive, he “rides the bus,” and he cannot go home because he “will not go.” And then, in the next poem, more directly:
His Name sinews into threads,
ashes, ashes, our birth country allows
no return for the dead. Except, there,
He is still alive.
Called into the living by relatives
who still think him growing,
still call him by Name.
What Xu accomplishes here is an acceptance of both life and death, creating space in which the dead keep on living and the living hold death in our minds and on our tongues. To affirm that the most final loss has not, truly, been final, that reverberations of a lost life (and that of our former selves) will linger, is in a way, to turn a page—not forward, but to rotate it, to read it from a different angle and to move in a new direction, bolstered by meanings made possible only in the spaces between words.
Noor Qasim most recently served as the editing fellow of The New York Times Book Review. In the fall of 2021, she will attend the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, pursuing an MFA in fiction.