Review: You Are Not Dead by Wendy Xu

Poets & Writers publishes a yearly list of the ten best debut poets, now in its ninth annual year, which was my introduction to Wendy Xu. Curator Victoria Chang describes Xu’s You Are Not Dead (along with fellow nominee Dan Chelotti) in her introductory remarks as full of “wry voices and jagged turns,” and the brief interview with her really spoke to me on an emotional level when she expresses the political grounds of her work:

“I hesitate to call the frustrating state of American politics an inspiration, but for better or for worse, being confronted by some of the horrors of contemporary America does instill a greater urgency for speaking and writing. In a time when there are those who try every day to legislate whole groups of people out of their vision of the future, choosing to pay attention to something else–to poetry, to a kinder version of the world–seems like a necessary and arguably radical act.”

– Wendy Xu in Poets & Writers, Jan/Feb 2014, pp.85

I knew I would love what this poet would have to say, and I bought You Are Not Dead (along with Roger Reeve’s King Me, which I plan to review later this month) and devoured it all in one sitting yesterday.

I was not disappointed. Xu has arresting command of imagery and a talent for the unusual insight into object/environment relations, the best ones often employing a kind of sly personification. Red velvet curtains at a theatre are faces, endowed with an important work:

…There are only sad reasons
for feeling sad and doesn’t that seem right?
Look how the curtains have a purpose.
They have big red faces parted
by light. Look how they excel at hiding
the show from everything else.

– from “Reasons Other People Go to the Theatre” pp.9

In another poem, dead plants resemble a couple of lovers locked in an embrace:

…The cold
has left me in it and the plants
are dead holding each other in the back seat
of a car.

– from “Auditorium Poem” pp.15

Similarly, wherever there are object/human relations to notice, Xu does so with a technique that reveals startling acumen for imbuing the mundane with feelings of human connection, pain, and empathy. She excels at her own beautiful and yet unassuming operation of observing and then sharing through her speaker with a gentle, carefully un-inflected and even-handed curation that is almost scientific. At times, this is probably also my greatest critique of the work. Xu’s trademark style of short phrases punctuated by periods, can, in the less developed poems, turn into lists of images that, although sonically pleasing, can lack the same thoughtful semantic relationships or philosophical density that is so richly available to the reader in some of her best stanzas.

It is this quality of scientific observation (non-judgemental without being detached) that successfully injects a quality of philosophical curiosity into her work. One title, “The Place Where I Live Is Different Because I Live There,” (one of the finest poems in the book) reveals that project. By cataloging the world, her speakers also show us that something happens in tandem with that cataloging, an act of looking that transformed both the looker and the object of the gaze itself. Maybe I’ve just read so much feminist theory that looking rarely feels, to me, a benign act, but Xu has perfected in the voice of her speakers a tender way of looking. One favorite moment is when she sees what must be a bachelorette party in the subway, wearing pageant-style sashes:

Sitting here underground is the same
as sitting in a chairlift that spans several
mountains because I am paying attention.
If some girls come in wearing sashes then it is important
to be happy for other people. It is important
to celebrate girls that spend time decorating
each other’s sahes because one girl is about
to love someone forever…

Rather than ridicule or even contempt, Xu’s speaker observes the event with a kind of wry wit and compassion, simultaneously. This is a work that never fails to celebrate its title cause–the act of being alive as itself an event worth marking and celebrating. The author has a compassionate way of giving the beauty and complexity she sees around her back to the reader.

Not to say that the work is a creampuff of sweetness, after all, death looms large in the title and there are moments of darkness. A tree fears a pool of gutter water (a motif–this work abounds with trees, so many of them and all personified with feelings, thoughts, or arms waving to a distant viewer), love seems tenuous, “a lot can go wrong” and some sad things are observed. But overall, this is the work of someone who loves life, who celebrates it. I appreciate that in exactly the way I believe Xu intends: as a radical act meant to resist the chronic overstimulation and alienation of contemporary life, and to demarcate the importance of the lives of the people she loves or observes.

A particularly bright moment comes in “Poem for Inappropriate Caring,” a kind of treatise against what I believe is a generational problem of apathy (Xu is one year older than me, and it shows in this poem) where her speaker duplicitously announces her lack of concern for, well, anything that might happen, good or bad. In sum, death looms not as a threat or fear in You Are Not Dead, but more as a reminder to live now. I’m grateful, as always, for the reminder.

Some of my favorite poems from this book, for the interested, were: “Dear Future, Where Everything is Hypothetical Except For Joy,” (which features the bachelorette party), “Wow Is What I Want” (a tender, beautiful love poem)–”I would give you all my teeth for / the idea that you would want my teeth because / they are mine.”, “Please Stand a While Longer in the Vast Amazing Dark,” and page 59’s “We are Both Sure to Die” (there are several poems of this same name in the final portion).