Phrasis by Wendy Xu, Fence Books, 2017—Review by Jaime Zuckerman

Phrasis, Wendy Xu’s second full-length collection, burns, but burns quietly. Before you even realize the poem’s effect, you’re already singed. As the title suggests, Xu’s collection is about language—its construction (and deconstruction), its role in our lives (and its failures), and how words help us see ourselves (and lose ourselves).

Throughout the collection, Xu’s poems are fragmented and broken, often using line and stanza breaks as syntactical hinges from one thought or place to another. The result is elliptical moments that resonate and echo, disturbing the quiet images or thoughts that they stitch together. She also challenges grammatical and syntactical laws with her lines and leaps. Her technique is something like linguistic cubism. In one gorgeous poem, “This Quiet,” Xu concludes with:

          “…now up for discussion of how
          a word goes on regarding
          its shadow. We had all manner
          of speaking not in bodies
          splayed likewise lurch
          and stutter. But tenderly
          a finger set
          to music.”

Language, here, is tangible and physical. It may have tortured movements and be broken, but it is still tender. There is something lovely and sad as the word regards its own shadow and a small part of us, just a finger, is set to music. The entire collection uses words and language as a Duchamp might use form to depict a nude descending a staircase. Even as Xu expresses a strange dissociation between herself and the language she uses, her poems settle into the paradox: language is her medium for making that dissociation—between the self and the world, between the word and its meaning or manifestation— apparent, something tangible, sensual even, for her readers.

The epigraph from John Weiners, “No circles / but that two parallels do cross,” illuminates how Xu approaches language as its own geometry, one where she can bend the syntactical and poetic laws to make space for impossibilities. The poems in the collection are sprinkled with geometric references and images; often a window frame serves as a lens through which the speaker narrates. The geometries serve as a metaphoric parallel for language—both are man-made abstractions meant to express the messy and unspeakableness of living life in the real world. And Xu’s poems are determined to point to the fragility of geometric and linguistic constructions. For example, in “Diagonal Sun,” she ends with the lines, “The dream of the grid bent over / there in the sun” suggesting the straight lines of diagonals and grids are perfectly bendable if we remember the enormity of the sun. The little human moments of each poem in the collection provide context for how small we are—“to clouds I am too little”—and how small our ways of making sense of living (mathematical terms, word meanings, etc.) are as well.

Situated at the heart of the text, the central poem, titled “Phrasis,” is structurally different than other poems in the collection and spans eighteen pages, each page with two stanzas one to three lines long. In this serial poem, we’re struck with how the white space of the page, what isn’t said, is as relevant to the poems as what is written. This poem is about space and how we fill the spaces between ourselves and others, the spaces within ourselves, the spaces in our lives and homes. Xu’s language literally fills in those spaces, gives some way of making meaning from the emptiness. She writes, “Women did not say color is its own autonomous expression / of feeling not bounded to the object, the expression of the object” because really is color: the material thing or the word for the color or the feeling the color makes in us? Sometimes in this poem, Xu invites us close to her own writing process and shines a light on it: “a cough / swells white space proportional to its source // My source text was unresponsive and so varying / methods, slashed it pink instead.” Throughout “Phrasis,” the “you” addressed seems like an odd and varied relationship, until you realize she’s addressing the poem itself as much as another person.

Yet for all their playing around with language and pondering selfhood, these poems exist squarely in a modern world. Xu’s sass and frankness make these poems electric. Just as she ponders the “approximate equation for the poem’s / degraded center” she compares this feeling to being “once again stuck / in the cross streets without / a bathroom / mapping app.” In “Diagonal Sun,” the speaker, “wanted so bad all that rustic shit” but it is “more fantasy than I can produce.” In “Naturalism” her reflections on nature don’t get too far either: “This thought that lodges: venture capitalists / of America kill yourselves.” Yes, Xu’s voice is feisty and real. She shows what it is to be young and live in a modern world. This world is no pastoral—we see the sky through the rectangle of a window and we feel alienated from the soul, even as we walk away from it. Even as Xu crystalizes a lovely or lonely moment, there’s some well-earned anger at modern doom blazing under those words.

Xu’s poems are cerebral, meditative, elliptical, beautiful—seemingly quiet reflections on language and humanity. But they are also modern, sassy, and ask hot and hard questions about how to live in this world; they rebel against syntactical restrictions and break all the rules we’ve been given as people and poets. See? They burn.


Wendy Xu is the author of YOU ARE NOT DEAD (Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2013) and the recipient of a 2014 Ruth Lilly Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation. Her writing has appeared in The Best American Poetry, Poetry, Guernica, Gulf Coast, jubilat, and elsewhere. She lives in Brooklyn and teaches writing at CUNY.

Jaime Zuckerman teaches and writes in the Boston area where she is a current MFA candidate at Emerson College. She is the author of the chapbook Alone in this Together (Dancing Girl Press, 2016). Her poems are recently featured or forthcoming in Forklift, Ohio, Fruita Pulp, Ghost Proposal, Souvenir Lit, and other journals. She is the poetry editor for Redivider, art director for Sixth Finch, and a reader for Ploughshares.