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A Review of Jenny Xie’s The Rupture Tense & Eye Level

by Joanna Acevedo

The Rupture Tense, by Jenny Xie (Graywolf, 2022)

Jenny Xie’s second collection of poetry, The Rupture Tense, which is a National Book Award Finalist, is eerie and haunting, shot through with strange commands and otherworldly writing. Centered around China’s Cultural Revolution and Xie’s own migration from China at age four, followed by her trips back to her homeland as an adult, the collection examines past, present, and future through a ghostly lens. Coming after Eye Level, which focused on arrivals, departures, immigration, and distance, The Rupture Tense feels deeper, more formally explorative, and more decisive as well, as Xie makes strong declarations and weaves together disparate elements. The Rupture Tense is not a sequel to Eye Level, but rather a movement away from previously held obsessions and into a completely new space.

Although there are differences between the two books, Xie’s language is impeccable, and she brings to the new book the same perfect diction and precision she did in Eye Level, with lines that could slice flesh and cut glass. “Desire makes beggars out of each and every one of us. / Cavity that cannot close. / That cracks open more distances” (8) she writes in “Unspoiled Fictions,” from Eye Level. The obsession with space, or distance, is present even in this first book, but it becomes fully realized in The Rupture Tense, where Xie says:

Forfeit the August you fell into an open manhole. Those years when people stole metal lids in the elasticity of nightfall and sold them off for grain money. Proceed forward fifty steps. (“The Game,” 19)

This poem, which sets up a character’s life as a game which can be played by taking steps back and forth, illuminates Xie’s preoccupation with the way that bodies move in space. The Rupture Tense is more tightly structured than Eye Level, although both books show an affinity for organization that is unparalleled. Split into four parts, The Rupture Tense follows a semi-narrative arc, beginning with the Cultural Revolution in China in the 1960s and moving towards the present day. The collection ends with an acknowledgment of the title, and Xie’s almost tongue-in-cheek reference to parts of speech: “And you, all future tense, leak through” (“Alternate Endings,”104). Xie almost seems to be talking to herself in this final poem, the “you” she references is intimate and personal, and the reader has the effect of feeling as if they are peeking into someone’s diary.

Eye Level also follows a narrative arc, taking place all over the world, including Phnom Penh, Corfu, Hanoi, and New York. Its ending finds a place similar to where The Rupture Tense does:

If there is a partition between

the outer and inner worlds,

how is it that some water in me churns

between the mountain ranges? (“Long Nights,” 75)

The narrative arcs of the two books don’t parallel each other, however. The Rupture Tense is told in a series of longer poems, while Eye Level is mostly made of shorter, single page poems which come together to create a cohesive whole. Xie’s first collection is mostly about travel, so it is understandable that the book would be more fragmented, as the author herself moves from place to place. The Rupture Tense’s tight structure adds a scaffolding for Xie’s language play, and parts of speech are a recurring theme within the book. She writes in “Alternate Endings:”

Soon after, the present tense short-circuits. Because my own mouth is open when I look in your direction, your face is smeared on all my vowels. When I cry out, pieces of you are carried away on all my vowels (99).

This sense of humor, irony, and bitterness is present in much of the writing. Xie is a master of cutting wit, and she uses verb tenses and parts of speech as an extended metaphor for things left unsaid. Memory, another pervasive theme within the book, is often referred to as a part of speech within the text, another tense which can be manipulated. In this rare moment of confession, Xie is sharing with us a glimpse into the inner workings of her mind.

Eye Level, by Jenny Xie (Graywolf, 2018)

Eye Level’s main difference from The Rupture Tense is the presence of bruising, confessional lines like this. The Rupture Tense has its moments of confessional writing, but it is layered and shadowed by history, questions and answers about mainland China, memory, the past, and time, so that the ultimate feeling when reading the book is an opening outwards, not a peek behind the curtain. Eye Level is much more intimate, a quieter, more restrained read, more intuitively a first book written by an author who is still finding her subject matter. In The Rupture Tense, Xie has found her voice, and the work is punctuated with powerful verb tenses and strong commands that exude confidence in a way that the timid, yet abrupt and at times, gorgeous confessionalism of Eye Level did not.

If the purpose of good writing is to teach us what we have always known but have never had the ability to verbalize, then both books are successful. Each book holds revelations about family, distance, space, and time which alternately shock and awe the reader, and Xie’s precise writing and ability to turn an adjective or adverb into a new phrase is continuously pleasurable.

Xie’s preoccupation with space is present in both collections, but in The Rupture Tense, that space is a cerebral one; in Eye Level, space is physical. She writes, in the poem “Distance Sickness”:

Somewhere we keep attaching to the boundless unknowable

Nowhere are you filling in the fovea of our eyes with calligraphy ink

Nowhere does the memory-image not quiver

Somewhere the shadow of your language catches on my ear

Somewhere the mouth spills with the solutes of memory, which thicken into something altogether different (94)

In The Rupture Tense, memory, the past, and language are not immutable beings, rather, like calligraphy ink, when water is poured over them, they melt and change. We see this same permeability in Eye Level, where Xie talks about the past and present as if they are existing at the same time. In the poem “Lunar New Year, 1988,” she writes:

Even what hasn’t yet cracked into being

can at any time exert its pull.

The whole neighborhood emerges at dusk.

Wakefulness drawn from the red applause

of firecrackers.

In the alleyway of my childhood home,

you can see I’m covering my ears.

At my back:

The years ahead, strangely lit. (31)

We tend to think of time as a linear quantity, but Xie is showing us the way it can be manipulated and changed, especially in the hands of a great poet. In Eye Level, we see more of her own history, her own life, while in The Rupture Tense we see more of the popular version of history, her family history, and the collective tense. Xie is present through it all, however; her voice is strong and steady. This concept of the collectivity of memory, of time, is new to The Rupture Tense. Memory is not only ours; it is an aspect of the community. When Xie writes about life as a quality in The Rupture Tense, she writes in the collective:

But the remainder of this life

is still kilometers away from being born

(“In Search Of,” 93)

She speaks of future tense leaking through at the end of The Rupture Tense, and perhaps the ending of this book is hopeful. Eye Level ends with “Nothing is as far as here,” (“Long Nights,” 76). We find ourselves, at the end of the book, full of future plans and far away from home. It’s not the worst place to be. As someone obsessed with space and time, as Xie seems to be, it’s actually a place filled with possibility.