Essays, Recent

An Intimate Provocation: Jenny Xie’s The Rupture Tense

by CMarie Fuhrman | Contributing Writer

This essay is part of a series in which Poetry Northwest partners with Seattle Arts & Lectures to present reflections on visiting writers from the SAL Poetry Series. On Tuesday, January 17, Jenny Xie will read and discuss her work in conversation with Jane Wong at 7:30 pm Pacific time. Tickets to this in-person and online event can be purchased at the SAL website.

“If there is an afterlife,” Jenny Xie writes in “The Rupture Tense,” the title poem of her newest collection, “she’s borrowing language from it.” I found this line as if overheard in a conversation. I was sitting on a ledge, New Year’s Eve, southwestern Utah, my back against a wall, Xie’s book as my companion. I had come to this place, as I do every year, to reflect. I had just left my mother’s house in Colorado, where I spent hours looking through old photographs—another of my traditions—and sharing stories while creating new ones. I see my family only once or twice a year, so the stories hold more importance, as if they are grains of self I am taking with me, a way to know who I am. All of us who have survived gathered in my sister’s living room; there are no more than a dozen of us now. Soon, the photographs will take the place of the eldest, and eventually, me.

Above me, an ancient hand is pecked into the sandstone wall. Another picture, though this one is now considered art, as if to raise its value. Could the artist ever have known that thousands of years later, one of their descendants would spend days considering that single hand’s meaning? I want to believe they must, for why else do we leave messages? Why else do we make art but to communicate our presence with the future? I have brought along Jenny Xie’s book as my companion for this questioning. Written in an intimate voice that engages the reader in her own reckoning, The Rupture Tense is perfect for a cultural, familial, and self-understanding journey. 

The first section, “Controlled Exposure,” examines cultural and artistic lineage. How what is found (like the handprint above me) reminds of what is lost. The poems in this section are written in response to the poet’s encounters with some of the nearly 100,000 black-and-white photographs made by Li Zhensheng during the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Here, Xie examines loss, location, and her cultural lineage. The stanzas, often created as lists or slideshows, read like an inventory of people, places, and things organized around identity. In “Memory Soldier,” a poem that marches forward with declarative lines and sensuous images, Xie writes, “Yet the distance between the seen and the known can’t be crossed by the senses.” Of the photographs, and almost in contradiction, she writes of the people in the images. “The hanged. The lashed. The suicides. The betrayed. The paranoid. The disappeared. The executed, slender backs to the firing squad.” The simplicity of merely stating what is, without description, evokes a sense of wonder. A sense of failure. The weight of which becomes felt. The images pile in the reader’s mind as they would have beneath the floorboards of Zhensheng’s home where they were hidden. They evoke a sense of loss through what is found. In the reflective voice of the speaker, and later in the poem, “A photograph is no place to keep the dead.”

The ledge I sit on holds the ruin of a dwelling. I correct myself. That language seems too formal, too distancing. Intimacy is something I am learning from Xie as well. It holds what is left of a home. I try to imagine it into the present, but I can only bring my current knowledge, tinged with its bias for happiness, deeper wisdom, and acceptance. Here, imagination fails. Here, even facts fail. I am left with the necessary provocation: “Facts traded too often between hands become the nodules of questions.” Xie’s speaker seems to call out from the page before me. But how to let go of the facts in a culture where facts are often valued over all other statements?

In a 2022 interview with The Yale Review, Xie tells Maggie Millner,

[Returning to my birthplace] was a complicated experience, and one thing that came out of it was an understanding of how much would disappear—memories, knowledge, textured impressions, life—when my older relatives pass on. I think the elegiac impulse . . . is the poems trying to thin the membrane between the living and the dead. Trying to give new grammar and movement to those that came before, so as to feel the past-in-present.

I was five days returned from my own ancestral birthplace as I read the title poem, “The Rupture Tense.” I thought of the old photographs I had rummaged through with my mother. I thought of the hand of an ancestor above me. I examined the fissure that adoption causes. The break in lineage. I have been examining this question my whole life. Perhaps, in some ways we all have. To whom do we belong? Those whom we can see in photographs? Those we encounter in story? Or those we know in our blood?

I wondered then, not only about the past, but about the future I was writing toward. What traces are my images leaving behind? In what ways are the current and past political rhetoric about people of color affecting our stories—those we tell and those we tell ourselves? How do those stories affect the translations of the photographs we see, translations we are somehow related to? “Fight the urge to assemble the lines out of dailiness,” the poem warns. And a few lines later:

Orient yourself to the tit-for-tat

Forever abiding the untranslatable

Later in her interview with Millner, Xie says, “. . . I think my work has become more invested in instability and irresolution, in the act of allowing language and the poetic line to wander across wider canvases.” I think of the canvas of the handprint. The sandstone. The placement of the hand a few feet from the ground, away from the home. Alone on the sandstone. What statement was the artist making? What was being said by all that was unmarked on the wall?

Xie’s poems seem to question the negative space as well. Informed by the poem’s content and ethos, Xie’s work is a study in invented form. Forms bring deeper meanings to the poems. Single lines occupy generous spaces and shift around the page as if in motion. The three stereoscope poems play with the device’s mechanism by creating depth of vision through the juxtaposition of two images, or in the poems, stanzas. In reaching saturation, one bracket line sits above a blur and reads, “[secret language spoken].” Some believe that the reason for art left by people who lived in these canyons was only ever known by the artist. The meaning was given by the viewer.

This is not to say that artist is trying to hide meaning in the negative space or the lines, but perhaps to provoke thought, to impel us to find meaning within ourselves. The meaning of a culture. The understanding, or at least the beginning, of who we are. The handprint is only the part of a whole; perhaps the rest is in the stone; certainly, some of it is in me and the art I have created. In that art I have yet to create. Informed by the past and the form the content has taken, I see myself and see new ways into my creation. 

The Rupture Tense is not a book for those seeking answers. It is for those who want to deepen the questions. Who don’t yet know the right questions to ask. It offers a way to see lineages, to look at where these lines can lead us. It is a mirror, and it is a lens. Xie’s book is proof that we need poetry. Proof that what we leave behind is a way to see into our future:

Tell me, what is a poem to you?

Anything that continues.

CMarie Fuhrman is the author of Camped Beneath the Dam: Poems (Floodgate, 2020) and co-editor of Native Voices (Tupelo, 2019). She has published poetry and nonfiction in multiple journals including Emergence MagazinePlatform Review, Yellow Medicine ReviewCutthroat a Journal of the ArtsWhitefish ReviewBroadsided PressTaos International Journal of Poetry, and Art, as well as several anthologies. CMarie is a regular columnist for the Inlander, translations editor for Broadsided Press, Non-Fiction editor for High Desert Journal, and Director of the Elk River Writers Workshop. CMarie is the Director of Poetry for Western Colorado University’s MFA in Creative Writing Program where she also teaches Nature Writing. She is the 2021-2023 Idaho Writer in Residence and resides in the mountains of West Central Idaho with her partner Caleb and their dogs Carhartt and Cisco.