The Rupture Tense by Jenny Xie is a clinic, a schooling, in poetry as excavation. Xie’s poems probe the haze of memory, the sound of silence, the immensity of what got ground-under by the “velocity of so many decades” and—more exactly—the Cultural Revolution in China. “Intergenerational memory transfer” is the book’s preoccupation, but another way of framing it is as a reckoning, in language, with ideology, with an ideology that, like all programs of power, depends on controlling language, and so controls memory. Xie’s book was sparked by the revelation of Li Zhensheng’s cache of negatives, hidden under the floorboards of his Beijing apartment, and smuggled out of the country to his new life in New York, where they were sorted through, edited, and published. Li had spent his life working as a photojournalist for the state-owned Heilongjiang Daily. The images he saved hidden were his secret war on the institution he seemed to serve—revenge of the amanuensis. He documented the communal brutality of and by generations of Chinese, the intimacy of a particular kind of pain, born of an authoritarian system and multiplied by reeducation camps, ramified into the shame carried by countless people. Who are now fading away, dying off, making the silence permanent. Xie, who left China with her grandmother two weeks shy of her fourth birthday, grew up in New Jersey, where her mother and math whiz father, who was doing a PhD at Rutgers, had been preparing the nest. Xie’s book, then, is a hard look backward, and a question as much as an answer—a calling out to the silence, and to a generation of people who learned well not to document, to bury your past while you’re still alive.
It may not be surprising, then, that the book is ekphrastic in nature, both in the sense that some poems literally render photographs into words, but even in a more general sense: the work is a response to the thousand pictures that are lost, the lost archive:
No close-ups here, no tight shots here.
And the photographs of public shamings, caught at the moment of ecstatic Lord of the Flies-like humiliation and violence:
Emotion rises to a stringent pitch
but refuses to spill.
Xie is restlessly changeable, formally speaking, from poem to poem across the book, and it’s one of the ways it departs from her earlier book Eye Level, which won the Walt Whitman Award from the Academy of American Poets. In The Rupture Tense there are prose poems called “Red Puncta,” a gesture toward Barthes’ idea about what makes a photograph devastate us—puncture or pierce us—and there are short-lined lyrics without titles, long-lined lyric fragments, poems that aspire to the condition of the stereoscope with its juxtapositions and separate-but-overlapping image-selves, poems that come in short numbered sections, poems that come in short blocks of text, and poems that come scattered around the page like a diaspora of letters and phrases. And always there are lacunae, always—as Xie put it in Eye Level—the “Hard tide of shame that I thought / had dried out years ago.”
And the book refuses epiphanic endings or cathartic resolutions. Partly this is a reflection of the poet’s commitment to description, to describing and witnessing, rather than interpreting or concluding. Put another way, the interpretations and the conclusions are implicit, and they have the force of the unsaid, as if silence could be turned back on itself, rupturing its façade of nothingness. For Xie, who learned English as a second language and whose first was Mandarin, a language without tenses, what is taken for granted or unconscious to a native speaker becomes a set of tools—enabling, if survived; empowering, if not alienating—and a way to open up not only speech, but the speaking past.
Here’s to the north and south
of this lack and its mud.
I feel my way around.
To new nouns.
To burning off
like soft, white butter
set in a saucepan.
JESSE NATHAN: Why is it that you write poetry? I mean, where does that come from in you, do you think? You have one poem in the new book called “The Game.” Do you find it useful to think of writing poetry in terms of a game? What’s at stake in that perspective?
JENNY XIE: Poetry, for me, derives energy and motion from the exploratory impulse: a summons to trace, or investigate, the contours of an irreducible state of being, one that contains something durable and unresolved in it. At the root of this is the fundamental incommensurability between experience and language—that which drives the casting of lines into the vertiginous unspeakable. To the extent that poetry is a game, it is so because of this vast distance between silence and utterance. Darting after the elusive, wrestling together something to evoke, or approximate, the unrepresentable—this resembles an act of play, no? Perhaps it’s fairer to say the poem is more akin to a gamble. Writing can feel like a series of wagers: how do I employ silence and language and the reverberations of sound to make visible the unseen, or to bring into flesh and word the immaterial?
Another angle that feels true: I write in order to do the thing that has been done unto me by another’s language or another’s vision. Which is to say, to try to awaken nerve endings in dead tissue, to break open parts of the interior that have been sealed off, to enlarge until borders dissolve. One reads, and one writes, to discover the strangeness of what’s hidden in plain view, and to be stunned by recognition.
And yet another: One writes to be reminded of the vital force unassimilated language can have, of the power and charge that can pass through words when they behave differently, against rules and convention, and against forces that crave to make language more utilitarian and rinsed bare of difficult thinking.
In The Rupture Tense, the challenge was to write into the overrepresented, and also into what lies outside of narrative enclosure. In 2019, I returned to by birthplace in Anhui province, China, after thirty years away. In trying to document my experience, I looked askance to the narrative threads that came easily. The story of diasporic return is deeply familiar, especially among immigrant writing; in light of this, I felt a great deal of resistance about pulling from this well-pumped vein. But, as I said, the drive to write is exploratory. In drafting parts of the book, I found I wasn’t interested in making coherence or a tidy moral script out of “return” and claiming one’s cultural and ethnic heritage—there was no tidy narrative there, at least none that had purchase for me as a writer. No, the more compelling approach was to crack open questions, again and again, and to enable further sites of rupture. On a formal level, I wanted to build long poems of structural force that stitched together many “scenes” and “cuts,” so as to expose new and murky dimensions of experience and feeling through juxtaposition, collage, and violent, illuminating charge. I wanted what filmmaker Chris Marker calls, “the trembling image.” For scenes, linguistic clusters, and pictorial descriptions to animate something in the reader, who is given access to see the traces of time and history beating inside something that appears fixed and still.