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Debts & Lessons by Lynn Xu

Debts & Lessons by Lynn Xu

Reviews, Vol. 7.4, Dec. 2013
Omnidawn Publishing, 2013
ISBN: 978-1-890650-80-3
Perfect bound, 92 pp., $17.95
Review by Cynthia Reeser

Debts & Lessons is Lynn Xu’s debut work, out from Omnidawn earlier this year. This full-length poetry collection reveals a poet who is widely read; one of the seven sections, “Lullabies,” attributes each poem to another author—among whom are Percy Bysshe Shelley, Federico García Lorca, Emily Dickinson, Gerard Manley Hopkins, et al. Still other poems borrow lines from Shakespeare, Wallace Stevens, and others. But in the midst of this crowd, I found myself struggling to hear the poet’s authentic voice.

Xu’s work is more effective when it holds steady on a common theme or idea or image, which for her, is a technique that begets a strong sense of movement. But too often, the poems in Debts & Lessons lack focus and continuity, as with “III” from the section titled “Earth Light”:

Back locked against the barrel there
Is the conscious world, greased, lay dead lands sir.
Lay dreadnaughts uncoupled on shoring brain dark in eelgrass slurred gristles stir
Ear and heel cross night crosses without pain.

There is a definite need for cohesion, as there is little to hold onto. One of the more effective poems, untitled and preceded with, “For Frank O’Hara,” is written in an epistolary, prose poem format, which veers from her usual form consisting of short poems with centered lines. In this poem, the imagery is concrete and effectively sets a scene:

Dear Frank. I am writing you a letter with nowhere to send it. We’ve taken a room in San Felipe, on the Calle de los Claveles. Separating the bedroom are fifteen paces covering the length of our courtyard. Purple jacarandas seesaw above us and in the street […] Darkness spreads from person to person. Black hills outstretch the rugged profile of the soil.

This is Xu trying on different styles. Certain themes, like those of death and ghosts, appear frequently throughout the collection, but are too diffuse to form anything resembling a broader dialectic or unity of trope.

Xu’s strengths are found in the poems that create an evocative landscape through strong imagery, such as that excerpted above and in one that is preceded, “For John Berryman” in the penultimate section. But the poet strikes me as one that, while well-read, is still finding her voice as a poet. I look forward to reading her work when she does.

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