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The Creases Between Utterances: Jenny Xie’s “The Rupture Tense”

(Zoo Monkey)

“Whether [Jenny] Xie’s volume was long in the making or came out in a fiery burst (maybe both, by parts?), it is a work of substance, worthy of its current high reputation.”

Jonathan Culler’s Theory of the Lyric reminds us that “genres change as new works are created that either modify the categories or, eventually, delimit them differently in creating new categories.” Might Jenny Xie’s poststructuralist-influenced poetic study of a hyper-aware self in relationship with her ancestral Chinese homeland rightly be called a new sort of lyric? Or, rather, a return to aspects of pre-modern lyric, newly situated? In describing the work of Pindar and Sappho, Culler says that in their classical era:

“we witness the birth of the modern mind, as poets came to know themselves as individuals with an inner life. But such individuation comes primarily through the articulation to an audience of values or judgments that deviate from a social norm, rather than allusion to inner states.”

In the mid-20th century, with the arrival of “confessional” poets such as Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, and Robert Lowell, the divulgation of inner states of the poet-speaker came to be valued above all other aspects of their writing. That was the only deviance from the norm that really mattered. Plath’s “Daddy” was erroneously explicated as a psycho-poetic document, a diary in verse, rather than as a skewed modern elegy, that form in which public and private grief collide. There was a weird wonder for many in staring through a glass skull into a tortured mind, to experience the electro-shock of the poet’s raw feelings.

To understand and appreciate fully Xi’s book requires a more generous understanding of the intent of lyric, not merely as the effusions of an impaired “I,” but rather within its precedent as poetry that allows both private experience and the need to address one’s confederates. Again, Culler:

“In general we can say that in [classical] Greece the lyric is a form for public or private performance and re-performance, with a strong ethical dimension and a variety of conventionally prescribed roles, through which both meaning and value can be negotiated.”

In her 2022 book The Rupture Tense, Xie’s sojourner-speaker apostrophizes herself, rhetorically including us, her listeners, as an equal “you” in the equation. This is not the mere self-talk of an aggrieved sensibility.  It is private-public speech, a hallmark of enduring lyric, without which one is condemned to emotional solipsism.

And what did you understand of exile and closure?

It was the last season of easeful transfers, of the elective reentry.

Might as well prepare for the high contrast.

Might as well tune the nocturne, block out the lens.

And what did you understand about the occluding?

About VPNs, coded chats, the bitten and erratic ghosts?

About a collective disfigurement that never goes corrected?

Xie’s poet-speaker uses two-way deixis to lambast herself and those others in the “collective” who fail to understand the occluding, while making us partners in a three-way conversation. She finds herself alone insufficient in the semi-mystifying, fluid encounter with her native China, one more child of immigrants trying to reconnect with the motherland and finding herself wanting, due to the “high contrast” between herself and those relatives of her extended family she encounters as together they parse out the “diacritics of separation.”

This is a poem in which she employs euphony, such as the assonance of “season of easeful,” “tune the nocturne,” and the memorable image of “bitten and erratic ghosts”—not to mention skillful placement of caesuras to mark this writing as lyric in spirit. At least since T.S. Eliot’s “patient etherized upon a table,” it has fallen within the province of the lyric to regenerate sterile speech, such as “VPN,” by planting it in the garden alongside the daffodils. One cannot but invoke from those same years Neruda’s brilliant courting of “feismo” (ugly-tude) in such exquisitely painful poems as “Walking Around”:

“There are sulphur-colored birds, and hideous intestines
hanging over the doors of houses that I hate,
and there are false teeth forgotten in a coffeepot.”

The briefest definition of lyric is “meant to be sung,” but what we choose to sing about in the modern age goes far beyond larks and meadows or even intestines and false teeth. What may qualify as fit subjects for lyricism has progressed through time from the organic to the inorganic to the cybernetic.

What impresses here is Xie’s departure from a standard playbook that puts a direct, unmediated emphasis on ethnic identity as a thing in itself. A certain scientific detachment (rather than sociological warmth) prevents the poetry from becoming nakedly nostalgic, of idealizing the place of origin or of placing the American self in blank exile from paradise, diminished but defiant. The verses show feeling and get imbued with low-key lyricism precisely because of how ardently Xie analyzes her situation, which is not only about her, but “we.”

This self-expression goes beyond the individual, remarkably free of any overstatement of the pain of reaccommodating to a heritage in flux. Because she does not specify who “we” is, her poetic narratives are both particular and universal. This is not a weepy chronicle of loss vis à vis the source of identity. Rather, statements remain impartial. In lesser hands, we might have gotten a mawkish lament of the stress of speaking one’s “native” language imperfectly, of being rejected by the cousins because one cannot say the words right. Instead, it is coolly asserted that “the sonic dimension is asynchronous,” a mere fact to be dealt with “in the creases between utterances.” Do not feel sorry for yourself. It is not you; it is not me; it is the nature of decaying language in itself. “That repetition in this life is an impossibility” is as much a problem of translation, of linguistics in itself, as of any autobiographical set of facts.

In this chronicle of temporary back-migration, Xie has produced a fully realized poetic work of immigrant cognition. To be a tourist in one’s own country is fraught. These poems are pathbreaking in the manner of Alain Robbe-Grillet’s phenomenological novels or of V.S. Naipaul’s concept of the ancestral homeland as “an area of darkness.” “Memory has no vector” is a profound statement about the non-specific directionality of displacement in time and space, in a place where one lacks cognitive certitude. You can only locate a place relative to where you are in a given moment. You cannot even retreat fully into yourself because you are not a stable locus. The vanished past is “moving,” but less as an occasion to be morose than simply to take your bearings and get on with things. This emotive reality requires a new, or better said, renewed understanding of lyric mode, in which the self can be, at most, and from moment to moment, the still point of the turning world. Eliot memorably captured this strange sense of location/dislocation at the birth of poetic modernism in “Burnt Norton”:

“At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;

Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,

But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,

Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,

Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,

There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.

I can only say, there we have been: but I cannot say where.

And I cannot say, how long, for that is to place it in time.”

Do not call it fixity. The still point is a contingent and relative position, like dropping an electronic pin on a virtual map. It is a hiker’s compass to get your bearings before you move on.

Xie’s writing, while often strategically blank and void of natural imagery, nevertheless manages to be beautiful in other ways. The use of anaphora, that favorite technique of politicians, pastors, and motivational speakers, is rhythmic, creating a “public introspection” rather than a mere representation of the poet’s interiority. Could this be the new confessional poetry, in which the difficulties of the individual closely mirror the troubles of the collective, enacted in mutual remembrance? An elegy for the living? Such seems the case in “Postmemory.”

“Struggles we had

a name for and those

for which we didn’t.


Some matted

from one generation to the next.


Occasionally we

were released

from one

struggle though

we didn’t

detect it.”

Once again, the “we” marks a social destiny, an insight that can only be drawn in “postmemory,” never in the moment. And it is a language problem, not having a name for the communal struggle.  These divulgations, or better said, confessions on behalf of the collective, give The Rupture Tense its political power.

One of the most memorable episodes of the title poem is when the speaker visits an infirm aunt, debilitated and disfigured by arthritis perhaps, or lupus. Xie, once again measuring her distance, produces a portrait both compassionate and sordid, refusing to glamorize or soften the encounter or the speaker’s place in it as a helpless onlooker.

“She takes the knockoff Chanel glasses and adjusts her face

The high noon light there, lacerating

Better to hide this ugliness!

When her mouth opens, a row of teeth softened by an absence

My moon face—even rounder now from medication

She sews the streets together with hurried steps

That familiar smell of damp concrete sinking into sewage.

If I survive to next year, I’ll have enough saved for an implant.

The visitor-poet knows her proper place within this tableau: to bear witness to her aunt’s dehumanization by disease and its so-called remedy. Her compassion lies in the simple telling of the details. Otherwise, the “I” in no way intervenes. Her presence in China is temporary, and she knows that. Anyone who has visited a relative in hospice or a hospital bed, especially in the course of a visit, will understand that the most one can do is listen, maybe go fetch a glass of water, and try to maintain a semblance of normalcy when faced with the tragic dissolution of a fellow human being.

The Rupture Tense is an extraordinary work of poetry, parts of which I have had to leave untouched in this analysis, such as the remarkable “Red Puncta,” an extended series of poems “generated in response to black-and-white photographs shot by Li Zhensheng during the Chinese Cultural Revolution.” And three dated sequences of “Stereoscope,” “drawn from accounts of relatives who lived through the cultural revolution.” Whether Xie’s volume was long in the making or came out in a fiery burst (maybe both, by parts?), it is a work of substance, worthy of its current high reputation. One hopes that readers will approach this newfound exploration of lyric mode with patience and attention, on its own terms.

Johnny Payne is the arts editor at Merion West. He is a poet, novelist, playwright, and essayist. He has worked extensively in Latin American Studies, especially literature under dictatorship and Quechua oral tradition. He directs the Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing at Mount Saint Mary’s University, Los Angeles and earned his doctorate from Stanford University.

Johnny Payne is the arts editor at Merion West. Johnny is a poet, novelist, playwright, and essayist. He has worked extensively in Latin American Studies, especially literature under dictatorship and Quechua oral tradition. He directs the Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing at Mount Saint Mary’s University, Los Angeles. He earned his doctorate from Stanford University. Contact Johnny at

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