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Review of the Earthsea Cycle by Ursula K. LeGuin

The Earthsea Cycle by Ursula K. LeGuin (b. 1929 – d. 2018)

(Book 1: A Wizard of Earthsea, 1968. Book 6: The Other Wind, 2001)

The Earthsea Cycle is a series of 6 “Young Adult” novels set in a fantasy universe much like Tolkien’s Middle Earth, or C. S. Lewis’ Narnia. (Although by book 4 “Tehanu”, they are hardly “YA”.) Like all fantasy fables the series is a moralizing tale; the light and the dark, the correct use of power, the grand story of all human imagination, all tightly bound within an imagined land with magic and dragons. I’ll hesitate to describe the whole series but rather describe, briefly, what it could mean to all of us in 2019.

The real beauty of Earthsea is that in telling this long story LeGuin lived 32 years of her life. This is not the high concept genius of a young writer trying to blow your mind. This series is a rhythmic song and with each successive book learns a bit more of what being human means. There is something deeply endearing about this, it is hard to put my finger on it. Yet when book 6 (the other wind) finally ended I felt that the story could never been told all at once. The long story needed real time. And in an intellectual climate of ‘superstars’ and ‘bold ideas’, and ‘look how many books he/she wrote by the age of 30!’, the long despairing, hopeful, joyful fable of Earthsea provides an alternative: eternal ideas we grow old with; a slow and communal wisdom where we recognize our errors and continue story beyond youthful energy.

And the heroes of Earthsea grow old. It begins (in book 1) with a coming of age story of Ged and ends (book 6) with him in his late 70s, grey haired and without his grand magical powers. As I said, fantasy is moralizing, Ged’s own moral journey progresses like this: with encountering his own shadow; to navigating the labyrinths of mind; to touching the Nietzschean void of meaning in middle age; to overcoming shame and the loss of (masculine) power; to trust in others, and that real wisdom may in fact come from drinking wine, at night, in front of a fire wandering in thought with those you love, and the beauty of walking in the forest silently in autumn.

Of the fantasy tradition: Tolkien’s moral world describes a war on “amassing evil”. LeGuin’s world has slavery but no epic battles. Tolkien’s Darkness is absolute, and deeply corrupting, and only overcome with genuine friendship. LeGuin’s Darkness isn’t absolute, it is just a function of the Light, and is never overcome but recognized. Both are careful retellings of human myth, affecting and dynamic in their own ways, but in the end I prefer LeGuin’s Taoist revision. Her story lacks the feeling of a single epic quest yet contains the enduring truth that we are not forever protagonists: at best we get a trilogy.

The full arc of the stories tells of an imbalance of power. This imbalance is only understood when peoples from every background and cultural history, and school of learning, come together and compare their myths and knowledge, finding that one truth was remembered over there and another truth remembered here. As the stories coalesce we finally (after 6 books) learn how we became unbalanced. Memory is odd. And institutions remember even more strangely. Thus, LeGuin’s final moral hint is ethnographical: your culture will not mend the divisions in reality alone; perhaps the answer to your question is in another’s story.

So in 2019, a year after LeGuin herself rejoined the earth, with the internet and air travel pushing our traditions in a dangerous and wonderful confluence, in the twilight years of our planet, how will we mend the essential divisions in reality, how will we survive the unknown? Through power and marshal strength? Or in gathering, translating, and the raw courage of acknowledging our own ignorance?

Or… in a line: When the winds of change arrive, I will be there with you to unbuild the wall.


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.