Lunar New Year, 1988
Doors plastered with red paper cutouts
so that the oncoming year passes these houses by.
Sweep out the insistent winter.
Make what you will out of ritual—
the relative with the steadiest hands cuts the hair of her cousins.
Grain alcohol in a thimble glass.
The wife bleaches out the urine smell from the bathroom tile
while suffering the clean cuts of an insult.
And the husband?
He’s out in the yard sucking on his cigarettes
and pondering prime numbers.
This year, a cluster of buildings in Hefei grew more buildings.
Everyone is pleased by a story of plenty.
The husband and the brother-in-law remove every item from the refrigerator
and arrange it all on the old card table for a Kodak photo.
It’s the first point-and-shoot in the neighborhood.
The iron-rich spinach and clementines loose in their skins.
One bottle of artificial mango drink for show.
How quickly a photograph can erase all labor.
It says: we are sated, but the watercress and the pork are unending.
Frugality and daily rationing cropped out.
The camera neuters the present, so what becomes past cannot breed.
Envelopes arrive from a university overseas,
a new life activated.
The husband will go first. He purchases the family’s only suitcase.
Already he knows when he boards the plane
this city will appear small, as will his life.
His clothing, moreover, will mark him
as someone who had to earn his way.
Even what hasn’t yet cracked into being
can at any time exert its pull.
The whole neighborhood emerges at dusk.
Wakefulness drawn from the red applause
In the alleyway of my childhood home,
you can see I’m covering my ears.
At my back:
the years ahead, strangely lit.
“Lunar New Year, 1988,” from Eye Level.
Copyright © 2018 by Jenny Xie
Reprinted with the permission of Graywolf Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota
Jenny Xie is the author of Nowhere to Arrive, recipient of the Drinking Gourd Chapbook Prize, and her poems have appeared in the American Poetry Review, the New Republic, Poetry, Tin House, and elsewhere. She lives in New York and teaches at New York University. (Author photo by Teresa Mathew)
“‘Between Hanoi and Sapa’ this collection begins and continues with its ‘frugal mouth’ that ’spends the only foreign words it owns.’ This knowing ‘travels’ in a spiral-shaped wisdom. We go places; we enter multiple terrains of seeing; we cross cultural borders of time, voices, locations-of consciousness. Then- we notice we are in a trembling stillness with all beings and all things. Jenny Xie’s Eye Level is a timely collection of beauty, clarity, and expansive humanity.”
— Juan Felipe Herrera, judge’s statement for the Walt Whitman Award
“How many lives have been lived inside Jenny Xie’s brief life? I’m guessing the number is staggering, as is the wisdom I find in her remarkable debut. Eye Level renders the world with such lyric precision, such a quiet hugeness of spirit, such fresh astonishment. Already I am certain Xie’s is one of the voices that will help me, quite simply, to live.’‘
— Tracy K. Smith
“What a sheer and complex joy it is to read this book. I’ve never seen this precise combination of clarity, depth, heart, and loveliness- Jenny Xie’s Eye Level makes me linger over every breathtaking line and has me in a trance. Poem after poem is more than beautiful; they’re works of art made of fluid self and sharp life and the author’s singular intelligence, her feral imagination. To the question ‘who am I?’ this poet answers ‘where I am’ and finds new, dazzling questions in every discovery. The poet says, ‘Let there be no more braiding of words. I want a spare mouth.’ Xie doesn’t speak in riddles: she is full of desire and never wastes a syllable. A genius.’‘
— Brenda Shaughnessy