You Are Not Dead by Wendy Xu

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After reading Wendy Xu’s You Are Not Dead, I feel like I have a different friendship with relationships. Like (1) there’s a relationship between me and Wendy Xu and (2) it’s charming and familiar and still kind of new so we keep getting excited about it, because (3) the world of relationships has always been framed by the should be, so (4) why don’t me and Wendy, or Wendy and whatever “You” she might be using as substitute for me in the relationship department, teach the should be some lessons about could be, because (5) the imagination is could be (as well as can be) and (6) Wendy and me and You are all subject to whatever we think can be exploding inside us, meaning (7) we are at the mercy of our imagination, so long as the should be listens to our lessons about could be. In other words, as long as the should be is reading valong with us.

What I’m trying to say is that Wendy Xu has found the secret location where wisdom and the imagination connect, and she’s such a good friend that she’s giving you wisdom, invaluable wisdom, so that you can understand life as well as she does. And I don’t mean she writes an imaginative wisdom, I mean the wisdom she expresses to You, her good friend in every poem, is built out of a logic that could have only originated in an imagined world. For instance, from “What It Means to Stay Here”:

The wilds mean
many things and often we go on
into it. We put our precious bodies
in a tent. We have a lifespan and O how
we live it out. I don’t know much
about anything. I drink my coffee and wait
for what is next. My fine house blows over
on a Tuesday and the anthem of what
this means is awfully sweet. Where
shall I wander before I finally
am gone? What do I bring back
in my careless hands to show you?

Can you see the imagined world, where a “fine house blows over,” like a pile of leaves would if it were a house? Or where We put up in a tent to live out our lifespan, a lifespan complete with the poetic “O” that expresses our joy at getting to live it? As a resident in this imagined landscape, Xu is wise. She drinks coffee and waits for what’s next. She admits she knows little. She recognizes life is finite but can be fulfilling in that finitude.

Fortunately, You (oh, sometimes impersonal, and sometimes intimate You) can understand everything Xu is saying. Because You Are Not Dead. You are alive. And what makes living worthwhile is either the wisdom to foresee the best possible course of action or the imagination that explodes every moment with greater potential, and greater potential than that, too. Read a Wendy Xu poem, and you’ll likely come away thinking: Why not have both? That’s what friends would do for one another. Right, Wendy? Open up life’s imaginative possibilities. Give good advice. Be generous. And polite.

Which would seem to be the ideal engine of these poems. Even when the speaker is showing some skepticism for life, or what certain circumstances must mean when she thinks about them, my sense is that the speaker has simply been puzzled by what that imagined world is trying to tell her. Why is it that “We Are Both Sure to Die,” as all the poems in the last section are titled? In considering this quote

Later when everything is
like a surface. How it all
collects light is an incredibly easy
place to invest our faith. Ok
but where did you go? Why aren’t
we sharing something nice
or expensive? Everywhere
miniature airplanes, everywhere
more wings! Things to tell
time to tell you about death.
Not about when your body
is over. But about
death which is something impossibly
far away.

The rocky and shaky ground of mortality will always attend to Poetry (like the whole world Poetry), and I like that Xu can even be imaginative when it comes to learning about death. Did she really say miniature airplane wings are telling time? And that telling time is how you learn about death? Yes. She did. Death is the unscariest scary thing. And look at that, calling something scary unscary gives it a built-in irony. Wendy Xu can do it all! Go Wendy!

If poets are the people most in love with the world, then it naturally follows that poets will be the ones to tell the people about it. Which people? That’s probably the best part. Because we know poetry for the foreseeable future is going to be stuck at the margins of high culture, so the poets will be the ones setting parameters for the conversation. Should it be fashioned as a National Conversation (a la Anna Moschovakis’ You and Three Others Are Approaching a Lake)? Should it be to a younger version of The You That Grew Up in the South (a la Jane Springer’s Murder Ballad)? These are both good for creating new conversational frameworks in your mind. Frameworks that make you ready to listen. However, should you choose to be with The Close Friend Who’s Always Liked You for You, I would suggest you choose the book titled, You Are Not Dead, which is Wendy Xu’s most optimistic way of starting her conversation with you. Thanks, Wendy! I needed to be reminded of living!

Kent Shaw's first book Calenture was published in 2008. His work has appeared in The Believer, Ploughshares, Boston Review and elsewhere. He begins teaching at Wheaton College in Massachusetts in Fall 2016. More from this author →