It’s probably too simple to say that those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it. Better, maybe, to say those who fail to imagine the past are condemned to have it imagined for them—or not at all. Wendy Xu’s third book, The Past, is a tour de force of the lyric imagination brought to bear on history, a breakthrough both personal and international. One recurrent theme is the work of trying to come up with new metaphors for—and a form that can encompass—the experience of living in time, of being an historical being, whether we like it or not. The book’s three sections track, roughly, the poet’s life from her beginnings in China to her family’s uprooting in 1989 when she was two (leaving a few days before the pro-democracy protests at Tiananmen Square) and on through her years growing up in Iowa.
Section one is called “Pledge,” section two “Tiananmen Sonnets”—each piece six lines of four words followed by four lines of six words followed by four lines of four words and “built to evade algorithmic censorship”—and section three is called “The Past.” Evasion as freedom, but there is no nostalgia here, not, anyway in its saccharine sense. It—that massive ephemeral reality we call “the past”—gets neither dismissed nor dolled up nor redeemed. Neither the dogmatic China the poet’s parents left behind—many in the family were (and still are) laborers and factory workers, though her brilliant father managed to get a golden-ticket education, a way out—nor the vertiginous loneliness that we call America get simple or easy or favorable treatment. China’s brutality—“tried to take my mother / away in a van / to the county hospital / for procedures / against her will / for the good of the population / growing too fast / because of dumb ugly / country folk / like her”—and America’s classism and racism—“What I resent most is the punitive sensibility this is breeding inside me”—are brought within the same set of poems to brutal sublime effect.
An example: the last stretch of a poem called “Wang Xin Tai Says Goodbye.” A persona poem in the voice of a grandfather, voice animated out of the shadows of history to give us this stunning description of drinking a coke, a coke which becomes a figure for the ruthless tantalizing sweetness of the American idea, and likely among the finest descriptions of soda pop in the history of English-language poetry:
… In this life I even crossed
the ocean in an airplane, drank too many coca-colas
on the flight, ordered with flashcards
I stored beneath my hat. It wasn’t profound.
At the end, your life doesn’t really churn before your eyes.
It’s not a colossus that plays itself back
upon the eyelids like a final prayer. But the soda
was good, sweet. It popped and sang
on my tongue like English, something remembering
me in the present tense.
So the poem ends. “It popped and sang / on my tongue like English.” So many of these poems make language subject. But not for its own sake. “I wanted to craft a more outstanding mode of engagement with the soul,” writes the poet in a poem made of thrilling, long—I would say ecstatic if they didn’t strictly avoid enjambment, meaning they always pull up, refuse to spill over—lines. For she is a poet distrustful of the ecstatic. After all is nationalism not some kind of ecstasy gone deadly? And what is more destructive to the accurate representation of the past than ideology? She makes the case in other words in other poems, such as this instance using what I would say is, across her oeuvre, a Wendy Xu-signature, a frisson generated partly by a representation of absences married to ambiguously broken lines:
I felt my desire go flaccid, the leaves fell dutifully one
by one from their limbs But I wrote to you against
all odds Money Paperwork Love’s heavy
open door. Critique. Indignity. Vision and often
It’s more complicated than absence becoming presence, past becoming a new and present music. It’s that the rendering of these absences is forged, this poet reminds us, by the very dissolution it seeks to slow.
JESSE NATHAN: You have all of these interesting ways of thinking about what it means to talk about history, whether that’s personal, national, geopolitical, or anything else. One metaphor you resist is the photograph—you make the point that you’re not, in your writing, trying to make photographs of the past. What is it about a “photograph of the past” that you want to avoid? And what is the “present” for?
WENDY XU: I’m terribly afraid of freezing my memories. I want them to stay liquid and permeable, even if that also means vulnerable to disturbance or corruption, intrusion, change, inaccuracy. I want them open to expansion, recontextualization.
As utilitarian objects I like photographs as much as anybody else, I like to look at them and express my little surprises at what someone was wearing, was it really that sunny that day, look at the cake on her face! As a metaphor for the past, or the Past, importantly, maybe I find a photograph too inert, too finished, unrevisable. I also don’t write to revise the past, but to wade through all the pasts that my own past absorbs and is charged with keeping. My father’s past, my mother’s. The past someone else lived because on June 1, 1989, I came to live my actual past, in America. The spaces that act left open. The spaces it closed. That past speaks too. As a writer and daughter and immigrant I feel myself made of all these intersecting stories, so I’m averse to the singularness of the metaphor. All metaphors are clunky, admittedly. I think I conclude, in a poem at least, that the idea of a form (metaphor) that can “hold” the past itself is “an idea too elegant to exist,” so maybe the real metaphor is air. Dissipating mist. A sandcastle of the past, I could have written, but that’s… bad writing!
There’s a self-implicating irony to the metaphor of a photograph that I like as well—I know much of the history of the country where I was born through photographs. How could I not. I didn’t learn about Tiananmen Square through hushed conversations with my parents; I saw a photo of Tank Man in an American civics textbook in Iowa. I was like, What is that? I think I’ve stood in that square before. I definitely have. I recognize the streetlamps. But there was nothing there. There was certainly no trace of violence. Air. Mist.
In my poetry I hope I’m after something less tenable than a photograph, a depiction that risks rupture, denies comfort, holds simultaneous pasts.
My process is to grow a poem entirely from a singular catalyzing image that I either see, or that I see in a memory. I differentiate between those to indicate that sometimes the poem springs from the present, and sometimes from the past. Their genesis and their subject matter are two entirely different things. Many of my memories are pocked full of holes, as are my parents’ memories, and I tend to write into those holes or around their outlines until the poem is filled up with its own gone-ness. Somewhere I wrote, “We don’t remember how we got here, so have woven a beautiful story of replacement.” It’s true. I don’t remember a thing. But some of the pasts pulsing in that We, do. Together we write that line, and others.
I wonder what the Present is for too. And who it’s for. You could convince me that as an idea it’s mostly for selling you weird products on Instagram, no? Live for the Moment. No Time Like the Present. Live in the Now. Age-Defying Wrinkle Cream. Live Laugh Love. Seize the Day. Seize the Land. Seize It All. Manifest Destiny. Maybe the Present is for Americans, tidy belief systems about individualism, exceptionalism, neoliberal bootstrappers. The past is fraught too, don’t get me wrong, it can touch nostalgia dangerously. But I love its inevitability. That everything is always becoming the past, instant by instant, forever. As a poet who feels in exile from the Present (as a promise, as a violent optimism), I allow my poems to be past-facing, and oriented towards a narrative multiplicity that I hope discomfits Americana.