not written words by Xi Xi, translated from Chinese by Jennifer Feeley / Zephyr Press / 978-1938890123 / 2016
Xi Xi’s not written words is a youthful collection of poems that remind readers that joy can be a feeling of investigation and discovery. In its charming understatement, Xi Xi captures the beauty of a moment, that moment takes many forms: sometimes a picturesque embodiment of a tiger, a song, or a conversation. Regardless of the topic, there is an earworm quality to the phonetics of her words, the rhythm of each poem is unmistakable, a tune you will surely hum after reading. As someone who does not speak Chinese, I am forever grateful to Jennifer Feeley and her translations; without her work and understanding of the craft of poetry, I would not be able to add this Business Relationships to my shelf or offer it for your consideration. That said, no matter its language, there is universality in the fun of each piece, turning reading into a frolic.
Xi Xi is a master of capturing simple joy, even in a conversation, this is most apparent in her poem “Water Heater.” The persona is a young child who tells her mother that she wants to be a water heater when she grows up. That strange statement is enough to put a smile on a reader’s face but then the joy is continued with the child’s reasoning. If she were a water heater “Mama could have / hot water / to wash her face” or “give all kids / hot water / for taking baths” along with many other selfless reasons. There is simplicity in the lines, simplicity in the voice, and yet, I found myself reading this poem again to myself and again to my spouse, aloud. That’s another magical thing about Xi Xi’s poetry, it begs to be on the tongue, every poem gains body when you speak them, and once you speak one, you’ll want to speak them all. In “Water Heater” you can hear the discovery, can hear the proclamation of a proud child, making a choice for oneself and the humor of the poem that ends on the mother “Mama’s pleased / She says / When you grow up / go ahead and be a water heater.”
Finding connections is an incredible strength Xi Xi is able to carry through this entire collection; it serves her well when she picks up more heavy topics like what’s found in “Driving through Palestinian Refugee Camps.” Despite the poem detailing “brick houses roofed in tin / Freezers in winter, ovens on summer days,” there is an overwhelming sense of empathy. She utilizes the pronoun “you” which is both singular and plural. When the poem describes “you are draped in black and white,” the use of the second pronoun feels incredibly intimate, a kinship forming between persona and subject, author and reader. The intimacy reveals its source in the subsequent poem “Children among the Ruins” where persona relates the relocation of residents for the sake of tourism, to the resettlements in Hong Kong. Though these poems may seem to contradict the mostly joyous book with their serious subjects, these poems about injustice never feel like attacks. They instead use dialogue, ask sincere questions, and are ultimately about considering the humanity of these situations. By maintaining that connection between observer and the observed, these poems fit comfortably among the rest.
Ultimately, after reading this book I feel like I’ve made a new friend. A friend who after making me laugh, or dancing the “Crab Canon,” reminds me how to be a better human—only Xi Xi tops this by making me a better poet. Poetry can value plain speech, poetry can value intimacy that is not between romantic partners, poetry can be silly, and readers can carry silly poems with the same esteem as the ones that eviscerate. Not written words nourished the depths of me I did not know were starving and I believe this work has more to give. Please, let these poems connect with you and delight in their company.
About Sherrel McLafferty
Sherrel McLafferty is an MFA Candidate at Bowling Green State University. She is a fiction editor for the Tishman Review and a poetry editor for Mid-American Review. Her own poems have, or will be, featured in Notre Dame Review and Requited Journal.