Almost ten years have passed since Lynn Xu’s debut, the luminous Debts & Lessons, introduced us to her oracle. “Let it not be for what you write, the world / I mean,” opens one of the collection’s signature center-justified poems, redeemed from any elitist snark about the form’s limitations. That collection’s first poem, “Say You Will Die for Me,” opened with a chant:
Say you will die for me
Say you will die for me
Say you will die for me
Say you will die for me
All this commitment asked for, mind you, before any other kind of exchange between poet and reader has occurred; all this tenderness and extremity. The result, in Debts & Lessons, was a collection that moved expertly between intimacy and abstraction, that was full of dedications and lovelorn encounters that felt like mysterious allegories, both themselves and something else.
Now, Xu returns with a big book, in some ways the opposite of her debut—a sequence, an epic attuned to the body as a system as complex and mysterious as the universe, with images and black pages and play with typography. The sensation of experience and the durational quality of time (the vibe, so to speak) change and charge the backdrop of And Those Ashen Heaps That Cantilevered Vase of Moonlight. This isn’t to say that there aren’t images, or that the specific language isn’t important: Duration, after all, is about details stitching themselves together, as in the specific quality of counting, which Xu does here repeatedly, one, two, three, four five, six, seven, eight, nine. Most dramatically, she counts up in anticipation, in huge letters across facing pages: “The unanimous Mother // When does she arrive?” The single digit numeral, the space between zero and one—these are vital intervals for Xu, ways to track when one thing becomes another, to mark when ambiguity gives way to clarity, and then to ambiguity, and then to clarity.
Xu spins this continuous shifting into the book, and the body, from the start. The title conveys precisely this balance between knowing and uncertainty: And Those Ashen Heaps That Cantilevered Vase of Moonlight is kind of incomprehensible. Not semantically—you can parse it as the part of a sentence it might be, put the phantom comma in before “that” to separate the parallel clauses—but in terms of meaning, it’s like walking into a dark room at an art gallery. You lift the heavy curtain to see the specific installation illuminated, piles of ash on floor, a vase tipped over and supported only on one end, spilling silver light. It’s beautiful, and there’s something in the tension between the ash and the light that sticks out, but it refuses any immediately comprehensible, narrative, aspect. This quality is underscored by the black-and-white images which punctuate the book. They are indeterminate, perhaps of an eye or a person laying down; they are like a still from a Warhol film, only pixelated, as if the still were captured from a zoomed-in internet source. But it is not a still, whether from the internet or otherwise; it is not a static installation. Instead, the book is that strangest of all contemporary poetic endeavors, the opposite of the dominant, distilled lyric moment: a progression. A journey.
Poets make a big deal about the body not because poetry disembodies you—although sometimes, especially when you are “absorbed,” looking down at a book in your lap, it can—but because poetry does a strange thing where it fills and replaces your body with another one. This other body, of you and the book, has feelings as well, in fact has more flexible, experimental, changeable, sensations. But if the poet doesn’t remind you that you can take those changed feelings back with you to your actual body, the one that goes out and does other things like cook, or count, or mother, you might forget. Vase of Moonlight opens with this kind of cycling, moving the body into and out of a larger social structure:
Rippling in the ceosops
foreskin of wind
still surrounded by blood
and the uneven caresses
lying at the bottom
days of complete idleness
at ***** in the afternoon
a windbreak of gum tress
the edge of time
This opening gesture stitches the unreality of experience to its physical materialization—on the one hand blood, urine; on the other “dreaming dreaming.” (Not to mention that “ceosops,” on its own, does this work as a nonce word, in a collection otherwise too frustrated with language anyway, and too enmeshed in more than one, to bother making up its own.) The cycle of the book’s form, its interest in sequence, is already present: from foreskin to wind to blood to poverty to caresses to dreams, ending with the promised continuation of “et cetera.” And then the book unfurls into an expansive sequence of black pages—93 of them, the longest section in the book. Yet it goes by quickly, with large font and only a short phrase on each page, floating like the moon through the night. When the phrase is in English or Chinese, it appears on top of its counterpart translation; when it is in Spanish (or, in a brief quotation, French) it appears untranslated, unsettling any idea of a clear-cut transformation from one language to another but affirming a simple usefulness of the transaction. The sequence is a valorization of the possibility of the dark as the space of the unconscious, of unknowing, of working out. “She is floating / and I float with her / in the middle of nothing,” the English of the first three pages reads, “and then: / I was born / phosphorescing.” “Living,” this sequence suggests, “brings me closer / to everything / streets…corpses…grief…sun.” But ultimately, this is a sequence about coming out of a dark symbiosis into an individualized perception—that is, about birth, and the severance of the self from the mother. Having been born “[i]n the labyrinth / of a teardrop / on the seventeenth / of December at / six / no / seven,” the black pages end, and the sun seems to rise. (Early excerpts of the book were published as “N O C T U R N E” and as “Tournesol,” French for sunflower.)
But with the sun, so too come shadows, and language in these cream pages which follow the dark ones holds this sense of being belated, being provisional and haunted. The coherence of the self is only an aftereffect of its coming-into-being: “Last night, beside the menstrual shadow of the corpse,” Xu writes,
I saw my mother’s legs (her enormous legs) opening and closing in a voluptuous trance sweeping the thick current, the amorous pity of her legs which with my mouth I imitated, still pregnant, or, became, by way of imitation, innumerable.
Here the abstractions of change and birth become specified in a mother and daughter pair: we have the juxtaposition of pregnancy and menstruation, the mouth and vagina, the undoing of individuation by imitation. As Xu’s sequences continue, they take on more line breaks, and even when they look like prose they break earlier than the “natural” end of the page. Wave Books’ commitment to print-forward paper covers in the same hue as the interior pages has probably never paid off more brilliantly than in this collection, whose cover and title pages seem to bear no distinction from the interior journey that the collection documents. When the title appears in an alphabetic grid on black pages, like a crossword, it signals the turn towards the book’s end the way the sun disappears behind a building, or a cloud, before it sets.
The outcome of this is, as in Xu’s debut, a kind of oracular offering. But if in Debts & Lessons we received the oracle’s words, in Vase of Moonlight we’re in the fire, or the fumes, as the divination turns itself into language, as the “the fifth column, / remainder of the triangle, / advances like a bell in the afternoon.” This partial but weighty language is perhaps the cantilever of the title, a one-sided anchor that prevents the cycle from turning fully around again. “[R]eality,” Xu observes, is “where the name eats the / body and holds it upright.” If language eats the body, it also creates one kind of social link; it is rigid and idiosyncratic as well as shared. A cycle spinning off-kilter may not return to its original position, but instead travel, and rather than only bemoan this change Xu moves with it. “I follow the egg,” she narrates, returning to the gestational corridor, but this time instead of being a process towards individuation it is one into anonymity: “into its interior, / into an afternoon / that could have been anyone’s.”