Jenny Xie’s debut book of poetry, Eye Level, aims its gaze at two concepts: time and interiority. To arrive there, her poems travel through cities, landscapes and memories, exploring them with a voice both isolated from the world and communing with it. The result is a stunning collection—part travel narrative, part kaleidoscopic autobiography.
The winner of the Walt Whitman Award, Eye Level works in contradictions: It speaks from solitude yet dwells in an array of communities; it ties itself to concrete places but has deeper psychological concerns. “Can this solitude be rootless, unhooked from the ground?” the speaker asks in the opening poem. “No matter. The mind exists both inside and out.” Eye Level mediates that dynamic. Things are felt in both senses of the word.
Xie’s imagery is like an Etch A Sketch being shaken and redrawn, moving rapidly through gritty scenes in miniature. We encounter “Karaoke bars bracketed by vendors hawking salted crickets” and a “motorbike with a hog strapped to its seat, / the size of a date pit from the distance.” The speaker speaks of their “coarse immigrant blood,” their “fishbone days” and “fatty grief.” The month of a May is a “slow peach.”
These tactile moments pull us through Xie’s relentless probing of location, both in time and space. Time has a physicality throughout (“I pull apart the evening with a fork”) and is intertwined with familial history, a realm where “suffering has its own logic.”
Xie’s lively formal approach incorporates many styles; most notable is her series of haibun, a combination of prose poetry and haiku (a form pioneered by Matsuo Bashō, another poet who traveled the outer world while exploring the inner one). That’s what makes Eye Level such an enchanting read: its ability to be everywhere and do everything at once. It draws its energy from all over and then finds its way directly to the heart.