This Review was written by Lisa McMurtray and was featured in The Southeast Review Vol. 33.1.
Wendy Xu. You Are Not Dead. Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2013. $15.95.
“Maybe don’t for another minute be afraid / of anything,” Wendy Xu writes in her first full-length collection, You Are Not Dead. And it is easy to be unafraid while reading these poems because these poems ask the reader to give themselves fully to the moment, to ignore mortality but also to be acutely aware of our own inevitable death. These poems seek a kind of acceptance, within the reader and within themselves. They explore. They collect, take notice, wander through impossible zoos because they can. They are experiential in the best kind of way, the way that draws the reader in and makes them want to stay just a little while longer.
The collection, divided into six sections, the last of which is comprised entirely of poems entitled “We Are Both Sure to Die,” explores the ways in which the world is made up of things both significant and inconsequential. Xu masterfully merges these elements, writing with authority but also a pervasive playfulness. Her scope is vast. “Sitting here underground,” she writes, “is the same / as sitting in a chairlift that spans several / mountains because I am paying attention.” Through each of these poems, Xu urges the reader to be aware even when that awareness is uncomfortable or strange or even mundane. “One way to be amazed,” Xu proposes, “is to be / less amazing and then pay / attention.” Observation then, be it internal or external, becomes a powerful tool, one necessary to attempt to understand life’s complicated, confusing, and wonderful mysteries.
That collision is best felt in the final section of You Are Not Dead. “We Are Both Sure to Die” begins alternatively, “Without coffee and only minor explosions / to spell our names” and “With the morning like a sledgehammer and that / is exciting” and “But I feel like a person again.” Each iteration is celebratory yet melancholic, like a jazz funeral winding its way through narrow streets so the ghosts can no longer find their way home. By making the familiar foreign (and vice versa), Xu creates a world populated with absurd yet beautiful imagery as if from some wild dreamscape. Xu writes in one poem that “it is always an unfamiliar kind / of knowing,” and that idea seems at the heart of this collection. Removed from the recognizable, Xu argues, “Everything / matters when you are reverently displaced.”
While much of the collection is permeated with a sense of wonder, an undercurrent of anxiety allows Xu to make statements like, “You are part of other people but not / like them,” and “We are running out / of time” without melodrama. “I want to be some kind / of genuine,” Xu writes, and that sentiment is felt throughout. The buoyancy of Xu’s lyric imagery carries the weight of such heavy assertions but also lends them power. Xu grants the reader agency over loneliness and fear as much as over personal happiness. “I will keep working / at the fulfilling,” Xu writes, and seems to encourage the reader to do so too.
What makes this book so necessary is that it gives us permission to feel joy in all its myriad forms—joy without any anchor, joy colored by sadness (and how nice it is to be allowed that sadness), joy for the end of the world and for its infinite possibilities, joy for humor and peculiarity and singularity and the fact that yes, we are all living right now, in this moment, and how amazing this moment truly is. “Here comes / one more thing that makes / us matter,” Xu writes, and that sentiment resonates to the very last page.
Wendy Xu is the author of Phrasis (Fence Books Ottoline Prize, 2017), named one of the 10 Best Poetry Books of 2017 by The New York Times, and one of the 13 Best Poetry Books of 2017 by BuzzFeed. Her debut collection You Are Not Dead, (Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2013), was named by Poets & Writers Magazine as one of the year’s Top 10 debuts. Xu was awarded the Patricia Goedicke Prize in Poetry in 2011, a Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation in 2014, and her poetry has appeared (or will appear) in The Best American Poetry, Boston Review, Poetry, Tin House, A Public Space, Narrative Magazine, Guernica, and widely elsewhere. Fiction and essays have appeared in BOMB, BuzzFeed, and elsewhere.
Born in Shandong, China, in 1987, she holds an MFA from the Program for Poets & Writers at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. She has been on creative writing faculty at the MFA Program in Creative Writing at Columbia University, New York University, and is currently Visiting Assistant Professor of Writing in Poetry at The New School. She lives in Brooklyn, and serves as Poetry Editor for Hyperallergic.