Review of You Are Not Dead by Wendy Xu

Wendy Xu. You Are Not Dead. Cleveland: Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2013. 67 pp. $15.95, paper.

You, the reader. You, the loved one. You, the speaker’s best friend. You, a football. You, a river. You, the moon. You are and are not the “you” in Wendy Xu’s You Are Not Dead. I know this because when reading this rhetorically complex but unbelievably casual collection of poems, I embodied the position of the subject just as easily as I did that of the speaker. Take, for instance, the final line of “Like Whatever Makes You Not A Statue”: “Everyone is laughing but only / you should know why.” In this poem, the “you” has been addressed in terms of a close relationship (whether romantic or platonic) near the poem’s beginning and suspended towards the poem’s center. The final use of the second person occurs after a discussion of the speaker’s own dreams: “about a ferris wheel rolling away…on a gigantic tour / of North America…My mouth is a peach pit of everything / I’ve ever said.” Due largely to its placement following such internally-dependent details, the final “you” jolts us out of the intimate address and into a register in which the speaker could be considered to be talking to herself. Such a shift muddies the identity of the “you” in, I think, a rather satisfying way.

These highly lyrical poems are organized mostly in blocks—that is, stanzaic breaks are a rarity here. This is due, partially, to the emphasis Xu places on the line break, but it is also reflective of each poem’s meditation as its own individual and individualized experience. Each box of text contains its own little world in which neither you nor the speaker is dead. And each of these text boxes is replete with elements of the natural world: iron, trees, sails, light, birds, the moon, sand, horses, wolves, rivers, teeth. Underlying this obsession with environment is a pervasive anxiety about the apocalypse and its terms. The speaker of “You Are Not Who They Wanted You to Be” asserts, “when the actual untelevised apocalypse / comes I don’t want / to be ready, a capsized tugboat blinking in the harbor / is how you’ll know I stayed.” The speaker’s indefatigability is evident here—despite the very real fear of the world as we know it ending, the speaker is determined to remain in it, to remain in these text boxes, in the natural world, surrounded by its material things.

Reading these poems, I was spellbound by shared moments of suspension—the ordinary events that hold within them the same love, or pain, as a dramatic one. “I drink my coffee and wait / for what is next,” Xu writes in “What It Means to Stay Here,” and we are almost there with the speaker, waiting on the next grace- fully simple line, waiting for our own “you” to walk through the door and tell us plainly about their day. Throughout You Are Not Dead, we anticipate the next thing that is not this thing, while simultaneously reveling in the moment at hand. “Hold on, I promise / it’s happening,” the poet swears in “Requirements for Seeing a Valley,” and we hold out for the poem’s end, for the world to un-pause, for the following poem to affirm, “Here you are. Here / you have always been.”

Xu’s navigation of moments of suspension is not the only way our expectations are manipulated in this collection; rhetorical play is at the heart of her work. The rhetoric of You Are Not Dead is often one of disavowal—of what’s important being talked around, not about. Such rhetoric invites the reader to explore what’s not being said through the explicit statement of its lack. These poems almost say, “Here are ten ways to say what isn’t happening,” and this inductive approach results in an unexpected emotional depth. The collection opens, for instance, with “Several Altitudes of Not Talking,” a contradiction in itself, since the poem is colloquial, conversational—even friendly. “Several Altitudes” is, like all of the poems in You Are Not Dead, heavily enjambed; the first two lines read, “You are part of other people but not / like them,” exposing a certain distance from yet fascination and identification with the world around the speaker. These poems, truly, are part of the world but not / like it. Here, the ordinary is filled with the poet’s own awe and charm: “A very important car / with sirens rumbled by and sounded / exactly right.” What a totally obvious yet profound claim—that a car sounds, “exactly right,” exactly like itself. How deft of Xu to draw our attention to the inevitable aptness of the world.

Xu’s poems deftly navigate the space between the often-obscured personal and the dominant external. The concrete world is in the spotlight while the personal and confessional take place off stage—far away enough that we can see hints of it, but not so close that we comprehend the details we’re presented with in a narrative sense. “In June Like We Said But I Fell Out of Love” indicates, for instance, in its title, a past between the speaker and a lover, but the poem, even in its opening, goes about avoiding the subject, diverting us to a seemingly-alternate anecdote: “Once I went to a costume party for the end / of the world where I was a meteor and my friend / a blue jay.” The speaker and this friend drink tequila and talk about happiness on a rooftop while their costumes come apart. By the time we reach the poem’s final line (“So we stayed up there in the dark for a while / thinking about what to think”), we have entered and exited a moment that appears to be narratively separate from that of the title—the character in question in the body of the poem is a friend, presumably not a lover. And are we in June? Has the speaker fallen out of love, or is this scene one of a romance’s conception?

Xu plays further with our expectations in “Dear Future Where Everything is Hypothetical Except for Joy,” in which she toys with causality by utilizing anaphoral “if” statements that, for the most part, resist resolution through a flirtation with the “then.” Occasionally “then” appears, but mostly it is implied, or even skirted away from, as is the case in the lines, “If later the streetlights shatter me / into pure amazement.” Also at work in this poem is a sense of detachment as the speaker looks in on herself at a party scene. Someone has fallen in love. Someone is holding a glass up to the light. And in this poem I, like the speaker, want to preserve some element of the world’s unpredictability—I am with her when she declares, “if it is supposed to be a surprise don’t / ever tell me.”

Ending the collection is an eleven-poem series in which each piece is entitled, “We Are Both Sure to Die,” the second poem of which ends on a particularly telling passage:

     …We are not dead.
     We still adventure in a completely
     original way. Just coconut or
     wearing stripes for dinner.
     Good weather or hello.
     I have been waiting forever
     to meet you with all these books.
     The sky no longer angry.
     How does it feel now
     with your head still stuck
     inside the amazing sun?

Fascinatingly, this passage contains the material things of Xu’s and our world—coconut, stripes for dinner, good weather, books, the sky, “the amazing sun”—while simultaneously addressing the speaker and reader’s own absorption in these concrete elements in the final lines. Suddenly we are not visiting these poems so much as we are “stuck inside the amazing sun” of them—we don’t get to choose whether or not we live here, whether or not we are going to die. In this sense, Xu’s collection is entirely inevitable. And this inevitability made me leave these poems really needing to return to them—needing to go outside and look at trees and the moon, and appreciate the world, and then laugh at it for being so simple, and hug people, and say hello, and drink my coffee in solitude, all at once.

Raena Shirali lives in Columbus, OH, and is earning her MFA in poetry at The Ohio State University. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Banango Street, The Boiler, Fogged Clarity, Four Way Review, Ostrich Review, Pleiades, and The Nervous Breakdown. She recently won a 2013 “Discovery”/ Boston Review Poetry Prize.