You Are Not Dead by Wendy Xu
Cleveland State, 2013; 84pp
Reviewed by Nathan Kemp
Wendy Xu’s You Are Not Dead is a first book of poetry concerned more with what it withholds from the reader than what it shows the reader. I read Xu’s speaker as an educated, if a bit naïve, searcher of sorts who approaches her world with questions and a clean slate on which to write.
In the collection’s opening poem, “Several Altitudes of Not Talking,” the speaker “thought about maybe / trying to sharpen [her] knowledge” and is interrupted by “a very important car / with sirens.” The reader, in the dark alongside the speaker, lacks knowledge about the current emergency and is left to watch the reflecting red and white light. The speaker does act, at times, with a sense of desperation and urgency (from “We Are Both Sure to Die”):
There is getting to know
your body and disowning it.
The ocean says you
are not dead. What else do you want
it to announce?
A great force speaks. Then what? You Are Not Dead continually does not have an answer and as the questions mount, the reader is compelled to work alongside the speaker in an inviting way. At no time am I completely lost, as the speaker reassures me like in “Here in This New Place Is Your Memory”: “A tree is always on a journey / toward becoming a better tree.”
What I most admire about these poems is how comfortable they are building through negation. Xu, a 2014 Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Fellowship winner, tells the reader what is not happening, what is not here, and how we are all not dead. The result is a speaker “not saddled with any kind / of regret. [She is] not uncomfortable when / we talk about outer space.” There are moments of specificity, however, as the speaker occasionally works with tangible subjects, if a bit unusually (from “You Think You Are Something Less Real Than You Are”):
on some sunlight. I put on a coyote. You
put on a bigger coyote. You put on all
of the coyotes.
Xu’s aversion to traditional object-function relationships makes her powerful concrete imagery seem playful and the overall result is a slightly altered reality. The speaker deconstructs sunlight and coyotes to suit her competition. Though You Are Not Dead seems uneasy in its unusually empty, negation-oriented vessel at times, its message is one based around a common truth (from “This Year I Mean to Be an Elephant”):
feel like a straight line? I worry about how
Cue all the different kinds
of light and what music makes you feel
I mostly enjoy Xu’s music, though there are moments that seem less concerned with the primary journey. “Things Other People Are Good At,” a longer, sectioned poem two-thirds through the book, rings a bit hollow. Its short lines and proverbial overtones live mostly in a series of layered images and abstract internal monologues, which leaves a feeling of falseness. In the poem, the speaker shares perceived truths with the reader, but this book is most engaging when the speaker and reader attain knowledge together.
In the end, however, Xu’s speaker works the search down to a simple credo—one of eagerness and a willingness to still be amazed (from “We Are Both Sure to Die”):
the most amazing part of waking up
is you are not dead.
Hopefully my head
opens up like a rose.