Best Thing I’ve Read This Week: Debts & Lessons

30 Oct

Lynn Xu’s debut collection of poems, Debts & Lessons (Omnidawn Publishing, 2013), which is comprised of seven poetic sequences, opens with the lines:

The rustling of form is a sign of voice
though voice is formless, we are overheard
by a liminal chorus and spoken to
as a voice cf. hymn.
When the soul is heard, it can only be spoke of
as the decline of the soul. Profound sadness. (12)

According to the speaker of the book’s first poem, “Say You Will Die For Me,” the “rustling of form,” or the muffled sounds made by its quiet breaking, is a “sign of voice.” These lines, to some extent, speak to particular aesthetic effects that resulted from the of book’s long gestation period.

In a promotional interview for Debts & Lessons, Xu mentions that “a lot of what remain[s]” in the collection “used to be sonnets,” but like all things “sonnets will decay and tear open with time and listening.” Later in the same interview, she states:

Because the book was written over many years, the most exciting parts were met with changes in the measure of my natural breath. The metabolism of one’s body transforms over time, so too the rhythm that one carries and, in some sense, learns to endure.

If, for the purposes of this review, we take “voice” to indicate some poetic manifestation of the writer’s “natural breath” and the “rhythm” that one’s body “carries” into the poem, then the transformation of her voice (i.e. the “changes” in its “measure”) over time necessarily induced the “decay” and “tear[ing] open” of her sonnet forms. In some sense, then, these transformations demonstrate in a rather overt manner that “form is a sign of voice” [my italics].

Whereas the poet finds these alterations to be, in retrospect, the “most exciting parts” of the collection, the speaker of “Say You Will Die For Me” views these changes and the “liminal chorus” they produce with a “Profound sadness.” The difference between poet and speaker, it would seem, is a matter of how one perceives. Stated differently, the poet filters the process of corporeal transformation and its subsequent alterations of voice through a survivor’s need “to endure”; conversely, the speaker of these poems explores these shifts as emblematic of a sorrowful “decline of the soul.”

The recurring invocation of “darkness” that suffuses the collection signals, to my mind, a preoccupation with this “decline” and “sorrow.” For instance, in “Earth Light,” the second sequence in Debts & Lessons, the speaker announces our arrival at a “place where nothing shines” and whose “interiors” are “warm with the nightmare of guests and poetry / And you. Everything darkly.” (23) Whether this “darkly” place is the speaker’s psyche or an external space, we cannot be sure. What we do know, though, is that it is filled with “Decay” (26), “death” (28), and “Terror” (32).

Yet the speaker’s fixation on darkness does not cease with this passage; instead, it proliferates throughout the entirety of the collection, as one can read in the following excerpts:

                         Darkness hush
Of words be beggarly, be master and native
                 To the gleaming glade. (37)

The darkness I wipe now

From my nose (48)

                       The darkness in your pocket
Is catching up to me (51)

Darkness spread from person to person. Black hills outstretch the rugged profile of the soil. (59)

Darkness does not come to sing (77)

          summer brings
Lacerations in the brain a shrapnel
Of the dark (79)

The eyes of death did move
the ruffled edges of a dress
The flint and bone-
Silk of its face
Silver and dark (86)

While common sense might urge us to flee this place, the speaker suggests a different approach: “To the west lay darkness. / Speak into it” (25). Yes, instead of flight, she implores us to stay and communicate with it. But why stay in this place? What could communicating with (or immersing oneself in) “darkness” offer beside “sadness” and “decline”?

Indeed, these are pertinent questions for any writer or reader of poetry. One could argue, I suppose, for an affirmation of light as a counterpoise to these “night-effect[s]” (74); but championing unabashed affirmation (and, subsequently, a simple binary) seems to mitigate the opportunity to develop a more complex emotional milieu. Toward the book’s conclusion, the speaker of the Miguel Hernández “Lullaby” articulates these concerns when she says:

                    we are uneasy
Because of the light that bread emits
In your country it seems darkness
Cut away (69)

Yes, an “uneasy” feeling pervades because “light” cuts away at the “darkness.” Rather than seeking the negation of darkness with an affirmation of light, Xu and the speakers of her poems champion a quality within “darkness” as a means to produce a more nuanced psychological, emotional, and poetic register.

To this end, a particular kind of beauty manifests itself within these poems, wherein each “line…passes through a point…in the dark” (13) in order to echo its song of “sublime” and “stirred melodies” (18). While the songs that resonant throughout Debts & Lessons might be songs of darkness and death, they are beautiful because of (not in spite of) this fact. For example, in the third section of the poem “Enemy of the Absolute” reads as follows:

The Mexico we are still young from
Faking our own deaths
As children, shaking our futures
Before your eyes—
How warm the night is
With these feelings you’ve been avoiding.
The summer we spent in Oaxaca
Is at the same time inconceivable
And without eternity. (39)

A pleasant memory of a time passed dies, in that it is “inconceivable / And without eternity”; and this ephemeral quality of a long passed happiness, no doubt, may induce pain in that we no longer have access to a distant moment of joy. But this pain produces a gorgeous song that “warm[s] the night,” and the darkness which envelops us, leaves us in state of ambiguity that is wholly beautiful and poetic. The debt the speaker pays might lacerate her soul, but the lesson learned stirs her with song.

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