Saturday, January 11, 2014


rob mclennan Reviews

Debts & Lessons by Lynn Xu
(Omnidawn, Richmond, CA, 2013)

Language exists because nothing exists between those
who express themselves. All language is therefore
a language of prayer. Held in the dark, without sleep. Faith

is the confession that there exists that
wherein one is faithless. Wherein faith isolates a position of value there exists
two essential hells. The one you are in.

And the one you are after.
Sound is positioned in the other and is poetic because it is unspoken. Incidence
after incidere is positioned in from cadere, to fall. The point is incident

when it falls on the line is incident when it passes through a point even in the dark
is only an idealized limit of a smaller and smaller presence. The heart
which is an orgasm. A long dagger. The prayer exists

because it is positioned. In that presence
wherein the heart is expressed. Wherein sound is incident to the heart
exists. I am not asking you to die for me. Say you will die for me.

There is something quite remarkable in the lyrical nuance of American poet Lynn Xu’s first trade poetry collection, Debts & Lessons (Richmond CA: Omnidawn, 2013), and the small softness of her intricate lines. “I hear eternity / Is self-forgetting,” she writes, in the section-sequence “Earth Light.” In Debts & Lessons, Xu composes poems of heartfelt, gentle knowing and small complexities unfurled, exploring the distances and the connections between speech, language and being. In seven sections, the poems in Debts & Lessons write out what she knows so far, how, and from whom. Xu writes out a number of ghosts, and explores the notion of translation, including shifting from one poem to the next in “Night Falls,” composing poems from Mandarin to English into further English. “Maybe it is dishonest / This poem // Loss of sleep. A burst / Of spring wind,” she writes, in one of the multiple poems in “Night Falls” titled “TRANSLATION.” Reading through her biographical information included with the press release, one gets the feeling that those in the know throughout the United States have been anticipating Xu’s first trade poetry collection for some time, perhaps in the same way that those in the know in Canada waited years for a first trade poetry collection from Ken Babstock, or 1998 CBC Poetry Prize-winner Suzanne Buffam, whose Past Imperfect (Anansi) took a further seven years to appear.

For Paul Celan

Asylum is a dead man’s word brother
It is embarrassing to die to see
The sky below as an abyss and hear
Its horny thrust of frost thread shadows on the sea
The sky so blue upon the water sings
Its grave is green and through me runs the grass
But blindness does not furnish blindness brings
Night down to the blended notes that children in their class-
Rooms sing brother sunset after sunset
Do we not walk through crocuses in bloom?
The dead do walk upon their heads and yet
The headless one emits a bright perfume
God’s rainbow do we sing and singing did undress
The serpents that we name brother we are blessed

Part of what appeals in Xu’s poems is in the intricate smallness of her moments, focusing on hushed words, pauses, breath and absolute stillness, such as the first poem of “Night Falls,” that includes: “Relating to failure. I shake my hair / In the hollows // Of freedom, beginning to end / Is freedom.” Part of what appeals in Xu’s poems is in the careful attention placed upon the placement of every single word, every single space, articulating whispers as a force. “The rustling of form is a sign of voice / though voice is formless,” she writes, in the first poem/section “Say You Will Die For Me.” In the section “Lullabies,” the poems included are homages to those who have influenced her and her work, an idea that connects directly to the collection’s title, as she composes twenty-one short pieces for poets such as Percy Bysshe Shelley, Hart Crane, Emily Dickinson, Gu Cheng, Antonin Artaud, Jules Laforgue, Jack Spicer and Marina Tsvetaeva. As she responds in the interview included with the press release:

With regard to voices in the undergrowth this book is certainly populated. The “Lullabies” are frank with apostrophes and with crossings. Lorca was an early love. Writers whose work have instructed me: Lyn Hejinian, Susan Stewart, C.D. Wright, Rosmarie Waldrop, Anne Carson, and Susan Howe. When I was starting out, to see female poets break rules was foundational. Among them Howe was most important. In her work, the value of the vocable holds equal weight as a visual unit. This is true in Dickinson as well. From the bone structure of the ‘finger’ the Greeks derived the unit of the ‘dactyl,’ as if the anatomy of one’s body could meet the anatomy of one’s breath. Reading Cormac McCarthy and Brian Evenson this hallucination can be felt.

From Geoffrey G. O’Brien I learned the structural value of the line. From Forrest Gander, sound. From Keith Waldrop, the shape of play. And from Robert Hass, how to behold.

To the Surrealists I return religiously.


Born in Ottawa, Canada’s glorious capital city, rob mclennan currently lives in Ottawa. The author of more than twenty trade books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, he won the John Newlove Poetry Award in 2010, and was longlisted for the CBC Poetry Prize in 2012. His most recent titles are the poetry collections Songs for little sleep, (Obvious Epiphanies, 2012) and grief notes: (BlazeVOX [books], 2012), and a second novel, missing persons (2009). An editor and publisher, he runs above/ground press, Chaudiere Books, The Garneau Review (, seventeen seconds: a journal of poetry and poetics ( and the Ottawa poetry pdf annual ottawater ( He spent the 2007-8 academic year in Edmonton as writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta, and regularly posts reviews, essays, interviews and other notices at

No comments:

Post a Comment