Like Clockwork, Like Memory: There Is Still Singing in the Afterlife by JinJin Xu

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A few months ago, I smiled back at JinJin, the sister-friend of my life and author of the chapbook There Is Still Singing in the Afterlife, a winner of Radix Media’s inaugural Own Voices Chapbook Prize. I had just woken up, and her day was about to end. Her face was bright from her laptop. I saw her mouth moving, pixelated red and white, before I heard the words traveling through the skinny wire to my ears.

“What if this is it? I have no more good poems,” she said. She shifted. Her face came close to the screen, filling the rectangle completely. “It feels like I’m sending it into the void. That no one will care.”

I remember thinking, how comforting that even JinJin has these thoughts. JinJin, who I had loved and admired since I saw her for the first time. I was sitting on the floor. My mother had brought me to watch the older girls dance. That day, I looked only at JinJin in her two long braids, her red tutu, her straight back.

JinJin came to poetry in high school, the one we both attended in Shanghai. Back then, she didn’t think they were poems. All she knew was that she was obsessed with language. Even when she won first prize for the school’s poetry contest, JinJin still thought she respected poems too much to presume she could write one herself.

Many months ago, she had emailed me the first iteration of There Is Still Singing in the Afterlife, with the accompanied note:

i mean many of these poems you have already seen… but i’m excited to talk about it as a whole with u ahhh… i still cannot imagine it in book form


Reading JinJin’s debut chapbook feels simultaneously transcendent and insular. There Is Still Singing in the Afterlife begins with “There They Are,” a poem that opens with a domestic scene, a painting of a mother and father. It introduces the playfulness of JinJin’s syntax, her obsession with names, and her genius in rupturing the seams and subjects of a poem to illuminate the desperation of beginnings. Again and again, these themes emerge through her poems.

“There They Are” is a collection of vignettes that sound like the muted drumming of a family’s hunger, the speaker’s birth.

                             my mother, my father.
                                    Her skinny blue wrists, his ear caressing a cigarette.    In the beginning,
                                                   it is already too late,     but there is hunger & no time
                        to waste. All they need are six hands, three mouths

This poem, like so many others in the chapbook, suspends memory and stretches time. In the beginning, a new family, already doomed by an unknown force; then, a dizzying zooming outward into the universe, backward in time, to:

                                                              Begin the world     without a bang.
                                     Water, air,   the Earth split into an egg,
                                 elements halved for light.       No mothers, just two figures on a bicycle

Suddenly, the solidity is pulled right out from under us. The poem widens, and the domestic scene becomes celestial. One family’s doomed beginnings are as inevitable as the Earth’s. Realities collapse and time tumbles backward. Stripped of her name, the mother is just a figure; no doomed realities await. Constantly, JinJin goes back and forth between the mother and non-mother. The scenes gradually hush, until the mother is reduced to just her blue wrists, floating at the end of the line, no body nor weight. As the poem progresses, the observations become commands. “Put down my pen. Unfold my eyes. Count backwards / before legs, before longing, until I hit a snag in the web.”

Here, JinJin erases the present just to return to the very beginning, but not quite. It is a chance to make things right:

                                                               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 with no opening,

The poem is repetitive like clockwork, but also like memory. What happens if she imagines a different beginning? This time, the scene exists in a vacuum. There is nothing but hands, only the labor of raising a child. And yet, there is still no opening. The poem ends with another attempt. “Let me begin   again,” hangs on its own line, the comma suggesting the endless yet similar cycles of reconstruction.

In “There They Are,” readers first witness JinJin’s obsession with a name, a mother/non-mother, how a name can make real and keep alive. The poem that best captures this recurring sentiment is “To Your Brother, who is without name,” the second poem about the loss of a dear friend, but also about the resulting deep-cut friendship with his sister, whom the poem addresses throughout. JinJin names April because she cannot name her brother; she speaks to April because she cannot speak to her brother:

From the surface of your face, April,
emerges his outline. I look away, desperate
for you to believe me, to know my story
as true. Instead, I crouch to shift

Him from my back. I let him down.

It is a call that betrays the speaker’s longing to anchor herself, to grasp onto the person closest to him. JinJin’s confessional runs from guilt to betrayal, and she smothers us in her language, making us contort in grief. Every time I read, “Instead, I crouch to shift / Him from my back,” I look away from the poem. The guilt is so visual, so heavy, and written with such choking clarity that even though I know it’s coming, I always need a moment to breathe. But I also think about the hope in the chapbook’s title, There Is Still Singing in the Afterlife. April’s brother is still singing. JinJin is still singing, fresh from mourning. At the end, I am reminded that the one thing that words can do is fictionalize. Much like in “There They Are,” she ends “To Your Brother, who is without name” by attempting to begin again:

In this story is a promise. Promise
of a brother without Name,

                        word that keeps him living –


Magic Word.
World beyond grief.
Memory’s slippery net.
In this story, my story,

                        April, it was never snowing –

Growing up, JinJin and I danced together, played together, and went to school together. We share many similarities: the loneliness and imagination of only children, mothers who governed, fathers who loved their daughters more than their wives. “To Rest Dust,” a multi-genre play-prose-poem, encompasses those similarities and is written with a starkness that matches the subject:

            She is learning to live in a body less woman than mine—but my body is
            hers, her arm is my arm, her eyes are my eyes, and her new concave
            hardness my own.

            You Are The Reason I Will Live, she says. I grip the showerhead and sponge her off
            carefully, rinsing away the streaks on her face.

How to live with a love so intense, a pressure so ripe? The capitalized dialogue jabs me with each word. I first read this piece many months ago, and I still remember feeling ecstatic at the clarity by which she explores shame in the father-daughter relationship, the suffocating love of a mother with cancer, and prayer as both comfort and source of tension.

“To Red Dust” is also a musing on the name of a concept, a forbidden word. The forbidden word, as readers come to realize toward the end, is love. JinJin is careful to never name it, but most Chinese children would recognize the clues. I, too, grew up reading about the forbidden in the protection of night, and my family makes certain to utter it only in a language not their own. The speaker carefully sponging her mother is in fact a declaration of the forbidden, silent but swelling.

There are eleven poems in There Is Still Singing in the Afterlife that are also myths and prayers: poems that slip, twist, and delight; poems that stretch our canvas and spread us “thin-thin;” poems that cleave our cells and poems we cleave to, despite the many preoccupations in our daily lives.

“It’s so nice reading your writing,” I texted, “because it’s an extra layer of knowing you,”

JinJin had “loved” my text, the emoji-reaction version of the forbidden word. Then, she wrote:

“I’m so happy to give you my many layers.”

Michelle Xu's recent poems can be found in the New York Public Library (2020), The Shanghai Literary Review (2019), and Habitat Magazine (2018). More from this author →