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Lynn Xu’s Cantilevered Vase of Moonlight

“Here reposes the reverie-inducing freedom of Rilke and Proust, where you get to say ‘dreaming’ twice, or a thousand times, and even ‘et cetera’ twice, in case you forgot to fill in the blank with your own lyrical, rapture-adjacent images the first time.”

To read any of the books published by the singular Wave Books is to go on a carnival ride past Catherine Wheels of words. These productions, in their aggregate, represent an utterly clear, if eclectic, vision of innovation, which I summarize as “semiotics is fun.” Further, their editions are exquisite, with high-quality paper and an eye to design. One cannot imagine them as eBooks. The signature “plain” black-and-white soft covers are elegant, unpredictable in the size and placement of the typography they bear, titles sometimes wrapping around the spine and back cover. Inside, each poet’s phrases practice a wild discipline, sometimes one word to a page, other times, lines ricocheting now against the left margin, now the right, the next one somewhere in between. Or with the shape of each poem describing parabolas and other figures one learned how to graph with sines and cosines in calculus. The aptly named Wave is a case of poet and press naturally gravitating toward one another, in a marriage of perfect convenience. As in a theater production, every detail seems to have been gone over one hundred times to create synchrony. These spiritual descendants of Mallarmé and Baudelaire are animated by a sense of serious play, in touch with the historical avant-garde yet equally unfettered by any slavish indebtedness to the rebels they revere.

As I perused five of their publications that lay before me, one in particular beckoned, for reasons only understood somatically. And Those Ashen Heaps That Cantilevered Vase of Moonlight. I picked it up. I asked myself why more poetry book titles do not feature the word cantilever. Nine initial pages are taken up with each successive word of the title, presenting itself with indolent luxury. The pages had a pleasing smell, as if emanating a light cologne. Then the work proper began, in oversized letters, like an edition for someone with weak eyesight.

“Rippling in the ceosops

foreskin of wind

still surrounded by blood

poverty

and the uneven caresses

lying at the bottom

dreaming dreaming

days of complete idleness

urinating

without rejection

transparent

at ***** in the afternoon

now rising

now setting

a windbreak of gum trees

et cetera

the edge of time

et cetera”

Here reposes the reverie-inducing freedom of Rilke and Proust, where you get to say “dreaming” twice, or a thousand times, and even “et cetera” twice, in case you forgot to fill in the blank with your own lyrical, rapture-adjacent images the first time. And yet “blood/poverty” (are those two separate things, or only one?) governs this book. We quickly succeed to a lengthy sequence in which the speaker seems the cosmic consciousness of a fetal presence taking its sweet time issuing into the world since, after all, the womb is the world. The immediate next pages consist of short phrases undergirded by their equivalents in Chinese, white ink adrift on a dramatic sea of black background, each again meriting its own page: “She is floating/and I float with her/in the middle of nothing/in no shadow/The unconscious…/What is it?/A voluptuousness…?”

And on it goes for 90-plus brief yet unhurried pages, gradually midwifing itself. I could not help but remember the essayist and playwright Hélène Cixous, that confluence of accent aigu and accent grave, that sensual feminist who wrote The Laugh of the Medusa to cheer women on to write the body.

“The bodily functions, a passionate and precise interrogation of her erotogeneity. This practice, extraordinarily rich and inventive…is prolonged or accompanied by a production of forms, a veritable aesthetic activity, each stage of rapture inscribing a resonant vision, a composition, something beautiful. Beauty will no longer be forbidden.”

So it is in Lynn Xu’s poetry.

“Here in the beginning/in the first drop of blood/eclipsed by a butterfly

Today touching life/at its softest/most difficult…/What/will people say?/These women/attending to my birth.”

Always the ellipses, as if more could be said, or as if it simply did not need to be said but, rather, inferred. The book is marked with almost literally pregnant pauses.

“This window I imagine/to be the dangerous hole/life opens/From this first moment/it cannot be true/Today/this very moment/through which life passes/unprotected/by its beginning/today/I touch.”

If I were so minded, I could quote here most of the book’s text in a single paragraph (the words immediately above comprise 13 pages, for instance.) But that would be a foolish and empty gesture. For as T.S Eliot writes in Four Quartets, “We had the experience but missed the meaning, and approach to the meaning restores the experience.” In this case, that means read the physical book, which is intended as a sensory occasion and not as a conveyance of information in the form of text.

It is worth remembering that religious and heroic poetry, in its oral beginnings, was theater. The quickly manufactured “readings” of today often fall short of that total experience, whether they are of the “dry” variety or the histrionic spoken word type. The omnipresence of popular music with catchy lyrics, electrified and onstage, has poached poetry’s original province. We will never recover it in its original form. Thus the declension (or mutation) of our genre. By that token, Wave Books is doing a public service by producing aesthetically exciting volumes showcasing poetic works in the aforementioned marriage of sublime and graphic convenience.

Such an approach, perhaps not necessary for every book, in this case reinforces the literal and metaphorical viscerality of Cantilevered.

“the island swam toward me and peeled off its dolphin skin, this legendary business of cracking eggs with a laugh that pinches the anus, the cloaca, the miniature coffins, at the point where reality is, except for that rivulet of saliva reflecting the Milky Way, and there, in the dishpan, catch a glimpse of you.”

Thus ends the longest section of the book (which I prefer to describe as endless), much in the manner of the Molly Bloom section of Ulysses. You’ve got to have your game on to sell anus, cloaca, coffins, saliva, and The Milky Way all in the same short paragraph-line. And Xu does sell it. It is possible, as I said earlier about cantilevered, that we need to put cloaca into more vigorous circulation in modern poetry. If we dare. Let one not neglect the fact that Xu co-translated Yao Lang’s Pee Poems. The earthy is her precinct. The corporeal is her continent. For her, “blood, sperm, tears, saliva, fungibility of the mouth,” are the path to enlightenment. You won’t get there until you’re slathered in luminous goo. We are embodied beings and, in our messiness, lies our sublimity. George Bataille: “Beauty is desired in order that it may be befouled; not for its own sake, but for the joy brought by the certainty of profaning it.”

Yet Xu ultimately offers a sweeter spirit than Bataille, for her language is more introspective, more about self-understanding as a probationary female creature of the universe. She invites you, not to a blood mass, but to contemplation of what it means to come into being.

“I close my eyes and open them

again within myself:

the great god

with many hands churning

churning

in a temple whose walls

are no longer there

and there

just now

is the totality

an infinitely delicate

delicateness: my birth”.

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.

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 johnny@merionwest.com.

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