If you go to hear Jenny Xie read her poems at the Dalí Museum on Wednesday, be prepared to travel.
Xie’s 2018 collection, Eye Level, is a book of journeys out into the world and into the self, exquisitely rendered.
Her reading at the Dalí will be the public part of her visit to St. Petersburg as part of the Plume Poetry Series, an annual event sponsored by St. Petersburg College and Plume magazine. She will also meet with students at the college.
The reading series is an offshoot of the online international poetry magazine, founded in 2012 by St. Petersburg College English professor Daniel Lawless. He also directs the reading series, which in the past has brought such notable poets as Richard Blanco, Tess Gallagher, Juan Felipe Herrera and Patricia Smith to St. Petersburg.
Xie is at an earlier stage in her career than those poets but already accomplished. Herrera, who was then the U.S. poet laureate, selected the manuscript of Eye Level as the winner of the 2017 Walt Whitman Award, given by the Academy of American Poets for an unpublished first book.
Published in 2018, Eye Level became a finalist for the National Book Award and the PEN Open Book Award. Xie, who has degrees from Princeton and New York University, teaches at NYU.
Eye Level, its evocative title a gesture toward its theme of seeing the world and its relationship to the self, is written in an austere, beautifully crafted style.
Born in China and raised in New Jersey, Xie maintains an outsider’s view in these poems, many of which are narrated by a person in transit or in self-imposed exile in places as far-flung as Phnom Penh and Corfu. In the first poem, Rootless, a passenger on a train says, “Me? I’m just here in my traveler’s clothes, trying on each passing town for size.”
Having an outsider’s eye — whether it’s that of the traveler, the immigrant or the exile — often makes for keener vision, as the narrator of Phnom Penh Diptych: Wet Season notes:
Every day I drink Coca-Cola and write ad copy.
I’m in the business of multiplying needs.
Today, it’s whitening face lotion, whitening foam wash, whitening sunscreen.
Across the seas, the copy can only read brightening.
But here, things blanch.
Many of the poems zero in on the particularities of specific places, but others capture things which are the same wherever we go. One example is Square Cells, which finds its narrator located in the 21st century human condition:
Refresh for a politician yawning
In the bed of pixels, I can make out
truth and fiction taking turns,
one imitating the other.
My window faces stone and glass.
My screen faces my face.
Travel sometimes is a flight from relationships; “moving here was a kind of hiding,” Xie writes in one poem. In Epistle, the speaker addresses someone left behind, revealing that “... the opening you left is wide enough for me/ But I’m stunned to love aloneness.”
The “eye” in Eye Level is not only the organ we use to perceive the world; it’s also, Xie writes in Visual Orders, the “acquisitive, insatiable I.” The poems revel in perception but balk at revelation. In Zuihitsu (its title borrowed from a traditional form of Japanese poetry), Xie savors being the observer: “Even when I was young, I loved peering at faces in films./ The pleasure of watching and of not being watched.”
Yet the poet’s journeys seek ways to connect and be seen as well, as in Solitude Study: “If only the journey between two people/ didn’t take a lifetime.”
Contact Colette Bancroft at email@example.com or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.
By Jenny Xie
Graywolf Press, 80 pages, $16
Meet the author
The Plume Poetry Series, St. Petersburg College and the Dalí Museum present a reading and signing by Jenny Xie. Free. 6 p.m. Wednesday in the Will Raymund Theater, Dalí Museum, 1 Dalí Blvd., St. Petersburg.