The Substance of Style #005: ‘Debts & Lessons’

Contemporary poets and poetasters are incredibly fortunate (or unfortunate) to be working in an era defined by pluralism. Certainly, barriers still exist, but they seem more as hedges one might leap over with an unorthodox flourish and still astonish no one. Almost nothing surprises us anymore. There exist such a rich and varied outpouring of writings “rep’ing” all sorts of styles and values – political, ideological, and aesthetic – that one might say we are desensitized to “good” verse.

Because there is no longer only one or two dominant modes of writing, as the developing “canon” or body of contemporary poetry becomes more inclusive of more ways, our value judgment for what’s “good” or “bad” becomes even more evidently a matter of taste. One might say taste–the grooming of it into a more in-the-know, more “sophisticated” preference–is implicated at the core of the arts and humanities, its professions as well as the personal interests it engenders. Some might associate this with elitism and indoctrination, but that is cynical.

lernerPluralism has opened up the field for readers to choose their allegiances without shutting out or dimissing what they simply don’t like. Think about it: what used to be “unsophisticated,” e.g. knowledge about popular culture, is now ultra-impressive to drop in everyday conversations, on Twitter, AND in academia; a confessional voice is no less legitimate or “done” than an impersonal one. Pluralism has altered what it means to be “sophisticated” or (even more cringe-worthy) “cultured” – its most admirable contribution to modern life.

There are two recent strains of poetry that I like and find very exciting. One of these is the talky-talk, narrative, prosy fashion à la John Beer. The Other is the theory-informed, vigorous, language-focused mode à la Ben Lerner. Debts & Lessons, the debut collection from Lynn Xu, co-editor of Canarium Books and Comparative Literature PhD candidate at UC Berkeley, falls into the latter. In fact, Lerner once introduced the Shanghai-born, Texas-based Xu to a wider audience in The Boston Review (and actually, our last #hipyoungwriter Tao Lin once interviewed Lerner for The Believer, so it’s all very incestuous).


Xu’s verse stand out from the rest for its finesse and a certain grace. It carries a rare feeling that recalls literature written before 1930. Yet its polish never translates to staleness. Lerner uses the word “pathos,” and indeed, like a fruit submerged in a distilled spirit, Xu’s work is infused with it.

I first came across Xu’s work on an “online poetry binge” one night a few years ago. I must have read a PDF version of her poem, “Night Falls,” then proceeded to scour the internet for every poem of hers that’s been published, mostly in small literary journals. (The original PDF is no longer up on The Boston Review website, but you can read the poem here.) Since then, I’d eagerly awaited her debut collection.

Lynn-Xu-photoThe beauty and burden of including “Night Falls” in the volume is that nothing in the volume nor the volume itself surpasses it. Partly written in English and partly in Chinese, Xu accomplishes the rare feat of working in two vastly disparate languages without reducing either. Even the “Translation” she provides has a sense of presence that makes it independent of the original Chinese, yet also complementary to the poem. She strikes a balance between making no compromises for the Chinese language, and creating an entrance for the English reader. Refreshingly, the poem rejects the easy term of the “hybrid.” What results is a pseudo-mirroring effect (or perhaps two magnets of the same polarity?) that suggests integration as well as disconnect.

Elsewhere Xu speaks about aphasia, which perfectly articulates the difficulty of working between and amongst two languages:

When I go back to China, I feel a sense of aphasia as this other language [Chinese] replaces the one I now feel most comfortable with [English] … I wanted to test the two languages against each other, and the imagination of both the city and the subject. There are discrepancies between modes of experience when you transition from one language to another, and in presenting language to people who don’t speak or understand that language.

Presentation may be the weakest element of the volume. This may not seem important, but the font is too small, making the plain act of reading uncomfortable. The generous space-to-text ratio is appreciated, but keeping a 6 x 9 book size, almost requires a magnifying glass for deciphering the text.

The printed format even makes “Night Falls” feel less expansive than the PDF version. This is unexpected, because Xu’s poems clearly lend themselves to print form, being exceptionally well-crafted and best enjoyed at a slow, cherishing pace. Xu herself seems invested in the physical presentation, as she lends her own study of Henri Rousseau’s painting to the book’s cover.

I imagine a slim oversized volume to better serve the attempt. One akin to what Françoise Mouly and Art Spiegleman did to comics with RAW magazines – a beautiful object to hold in one’s hands, where one must lift one’s whole arm to turn a page. It would fit nicely with the collection’s surrealism, its undercurrent of Romantic grandeur, and poise.

Though that may be a matter of taste. Until the next collection,

Debts & Lessons by Lynn Xu, Omnidawn Publishing, 2013.

The Substance of Style is a series on new works by “hip young writers.”


RAW v. 3, Gary Panter cover


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