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The Unruly Poetics of Sight

By Isabella B. Cho, Contributing Writer

The existential anxiety of the past months have challenged our personal and collective sense of sight. Forests burning, communities suffering, the mundane distorting into the incomprehensible all raise the questions: What does it mean to truly see one another? How can we leverage our radically different experiences to promote understanding rather than estrangement? Perhaps most importantly, what does it mean to see — to truly understand — not only others but ourselves?

In her poetry book “Eye Level,” American poet Jenny Xie uses sparse, lucid verse to interrogate the intricacies of seeing. Though the poems that make up her collection are wide-ranging in content and form, they are threaded by a shared conviction to question the gifts, limitations, and fallacies of sight.

The affective complexities of being an outsider is arguably the most prominent motif in Xie’s text. In particular, Xie uses cities to illustrate the disorientation, grief, confusion, and occasional privilege that accompanies the failure to belong.

The kinetic chaos of the city becomes a site of introspection in Xie’s text, throwing the speaker’s solitude into sharp relief. Through examining her dynamic surroundings, Xie underscores that her speaker’s anonymity — her otherness — in these cities expands and challenges her ways of seeing and understanding. In the poem “Phnom Penh Diptych: Wet Season,” Xie uses visual observation as a tool for her speaker to coexist with strangers. In one line, she writes, “After clocking out, a group of telecom managers tear into durians.” Later, she remarks, “Someone sweeps thick cockroaches from the floor, someone orders oysters on ice.”

The individuals in Xie’s poem remain nameless. However, through recalling the details of their gestures, Xie humanizes them, imbuing them with purpose and vitality. Genuine understanding, she seems to contend, begins with truly seeing and appreciating one another, as opposed to assigning names. Her insistence on sight as a tool for empathy resonates deeply in today’s tense socio-political climate. So often, the “other” is reduced to a string of labels. While naming often promotes reduction, sight encourages holistic understanding.

Despite her emphasis on the power of sight, Xie also concedes its limitations. In her poem “Zuihitsu,” the name of an ancient Japanese poetic form, she confesses, “I am protective of what eyes cannot pry open. The unannounced. The infinite places within language to hide.” Though her previous poems emphasize sight as a way of understanding places and people, “Zuihitsu” underscores that there will always be certain qualities that evade sight.

Xie’s dual emphasis on the possibilities and limitations of sight ring uncannily true in the era of COVID-19. To focus one’s powers of sight on a person, issue, or community can be a deeply empowering experience. It is the collective training of our sight on challenging problems that have led to dialogue on issues spanning race, police brutality, and xenophobia in the past months. At the same time, relying solely on sight is inherently reductive. Many of the defining elements of an individual’s identity are invisible. A genuine understanding of others emerges not simply from seeing but also from grasping the distinct complexities of their stories.

For all its revelations, Xie’s poetry is frequently — and perhaps necessarily — obscure. The dense complexity of her work likely prompts an age-old retort from many readers: “I don’t get it.”

The simple response is that no one does. To “get it” is an impulse — a frame of inquiry — more suited for math problems than literary texts. The attempt to extract a singular and foolproof meaning from a poem is an entirely misdirected intention. Based on one’s attitude, “I don’t get it” serves either as a dead end or as an invitation to enter.

Given the book’s fixation on the deceptive subjectivities of sight, Xie’s title reads as a contradiction. It is precisely this tension, however, that Xie likely aims to explore in her text. Through interspersing her meditations on solitude, displacement, and anxiety with glimpses of peace and emotional reckoning, she extends the potential for — rather than the reality of — genuine understanding. Xie’s title, then, serves more as a dare than a description. It is a call for us — as readers, as thinkers, as members of the world’s dizzying cast of actors — to strive toward the ideal of seeing, quite literally, at eye level.

—Isabella B. Cho ’24’s column “Ulterior Visions” explores how the histories and affective complexities embodied in East Asian literature and cinema interact with personal and global notions of time, crisis, and “otherness.”

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