Review of Eye Level by Jenny Xie

EYE LEVEL by Jenny Xie (2018, Graywolf Press)


In the literary tradition of Jack Kerouac, yet without the latent misogyny and racial ignorance, Jenny Xie’s book, EYE LEVEL (2018), balances on the narrow border of the wandering self and the world. In many ways her writing explicitly corrects the “manliness of travel” that has pervaded the idea of travel and adventure since the very beginning of travel literature. Her poems are a carefully constructed travelogue moving from a realization of being in the unknown world (the classical satori moment of journey) spiraling inward to the meditative qualities of self-awareness (the lesser examined samadhi aspects of journey).

Each poem contains a tale of insight she encountered (or spoke with) while traveling. Step by step we follow the insights closer to the writer as Xie also begins to draw nearer to herself–or at least nearer the to the practice of self awareness. The poems move us along the traveler’s path: from distant journeys, to the nearby, to the endless interior: all containing borders, distances, translations, memories, and movement. “Traveling” becomes, in Xie’s careful words, the extension Zazen practice.

There is a particular paradoxical Zen truth in Xie’s writing: you travel to realize you never travel. Or: in the distance there is intimacy, in intimacy there is distance.

Form is emptiness, emptiness is form.

But the book is not mere theology or aphorism. It is an exposition and careful study of this truth, poem by poem, word by word walking through complex ideas in simple, plain speech. The words she uses are not complicated or theoretical but common words that anyone can hold onto; these are quiet words that suit the solitude of the road as well as the rhythm of breath in meditation. These are the words we learn in foreign languages while abroad. And that is all it takes. Like a simple day in your travels, it is a beautiful reminder that we need not possess towering concepts to know self and other–in fact those words only cloud and distract our thinking.

In the quiet, carrying words to one another, across vast gulfs of space or experience, we encounter a shared stillness of being that says nothing of borders.

The book loosely moves from the sections of ‘self-abroad’, ‘self-upbringing’, ‘self-society’, ‘self-mind’. All along the route. All on the journey. Crisscrossing the real-imagined borders between the self in dialogue with the world. It is a map, it isn’t a map.

Kerouac defined the idea and spirit of travel for a generation. His writing is gorgeous and vital yet steeped in a version deceptive human immortality that ignores the both grace of impermanence and the grace of restraint. (And Kerouac in ignoring such, like many men before and after him, was killed by his shadow long before dying.)

Jenny Xie’s EYE LEVEL (Although she draws her own lineage via J. Kincaid and A. Machado) is, in many ways, the heir of and antidote to Kerouac.  EYE LEVEL is less openly romantic than ‘On The Road’, yet it contains not only that wandering, lusting spirit but also its reflective and inward partner. It is a more accurate description of travel and more ethical. In the new world of instant communication and air travel, where the ‘open road’ extends way beyond the USA, and weaving together travelers of every possible origin, Jenny Xie’s book can and should be seen with the same degree of literary and intellectual importance. It demonstrates a form and compassionate insight. It inaugurates a new era and vocabulary of travel.

Where the self is and who the self becomes are entry points into the eternal exploration of translation and communication. In wandering open to the world your consciousness expands and develops in strange ways. Your ‘only way of being’ becomes ‘one way of being’. Eventually all wandering takes you towards the complicated multitude of the interior.

And then from there? We sit with each other and share simply, and then continue onwards, ongoing into and out of the chaotic stillness.