Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Poetics of "Dangerous Innocence," Poetics of Architecture - Lynn Xu and Joshua Edwards

We were privileged to have Lynn Xu and Joshua Edwards do a reading last week as part of the MAE poetry series. At the end of the performance, someone in the audience commented that it was refreshing to hear a couple read and perform their work together. And, truly, it was. Edwards shared poems he’d written for Xu (one of them titled “Romance”). The kind of artistic partnership which Xu and Edwards have is striking. They were introduced as a team currently writing a sort of poetics of architecture, where poetry and life are inextricably intertwined, dependently caused, and eventually literalized as an actual house. They’re working with architect Allen Warren to build a house in Marfa, Texas—a house constructed from the materials of poetry. The book of poems they're working on will, it seems, serve as the architect's guidelines.

Xu and Edwards’ collaboration is obvious on some level: they write poems about or for each other; both play important roles at Canarium Books; and they’ve been working on a book of poems (mentioned above) which will be published soon. Xu and Edwards’ work isn’t terribly similar, or at least it didn’t seem immediately similar to me, but they seemed to share a common element of translation—Xu moves between English and Mandarin, while Edwards seemed to move between limits, lines, and a limitless, even abstracted space.

It’s not as though Xu’s work dealt primarily with linguistic concerns, however. She is known for poems which have a surreal element to them, a kind of “dangerous innocence,” playfulness, and a childlike logic. Some poems were English; some poems traded off between English and Mandarin Chinese, but many of them, particularly her series titled “Earth Light,” felt like lullabies or fairy tales, and not just because ghosts and Macbeth’s witches were “in” the poems. The sounds and rhythm of Xu’s work seemed to me more otherworldly than her poems’ content, and “language” seemed to be beside the point.

She mentioned that her bilingual poetry is translated very loosely (these are poems where one line in English is followed by the “same” line in Mandarin Chinese). In this performance, the question of “what happens to ‘meaning’ in translation” seemed to be the least of her concerns. Musicality marked her bilingual poetry, and urged the audience to listen primarily to sound rather than dig for meaning. It takes practice—an intellectual and even physical attentiveness—to hear poetry first and understand second. When Xu read, I heard English dissolve into ‘sh’s’ and round vowels: a lullaby indeed. Xu said that for her, sound and meaning have equal footing. While working in Shanghai recently, she found that even in her thoughts, no translation occurred. She simply wasn’t conscious of translating from Mandarin to English or vice versa. In this performance, I was a listener for whom meaning was primarily available via English; when she read her lines written in Mandarin, sound was literally detached from meaning. We were freed from the despotic instinct to hear meaning first, and sound second. It’s not that we in the audience weren’t challenged, though: the content we English-speakers could understand wasn’t exactly “safe.”

In Edwards’ reading, the experience was different—the poems he read in this performance didn’t have a bilingual aspect, unless we broaden our definition of bilingual. There was certainly an element of translation to his work--translation between "empty" space and constructed geometries.

He read from his 2013 collection Imperial Nostalgias (Ugly Duckling Press), and despite the familiarity of rhyme here and there, it was difficult to keep up—every word seemed to take us in a million possible directions, or beg us to consider a series of ideas. Questions of being and existence were packed into words only a few syllables long that tripped over each other in every line. Absolute wells of meaning arose one after another. But although questions of being and ways of knowing created a number of ripples in the performance, a language of geometry kind of became the compass for navigating the ambitious span of Edwards’ reading. One of the lines from his piece “The Sixth Lamp” went something like this: “On the edge of the forest is a map of your country—a place you will never return to.” His work was filled with angles, shapes, lines, concrete images that, like the above quote, seemed to provide instructions or directions.

I don’t have a profound statement to close out this post, no pretty bow that gives the sense of a conclusion, but I'd wager the lack of such a conclusion is truer to the poetics of Xu and Edwards. Xu after all said she likes that her work allows "an abyss between readability and non-readability." Maybe this will serve: I can’t wait to see the house they eventually construct in Marfa. Hopefully, pictures will be available somewhere online or, better, in print.

Lynn Xu was born in Shanghai. She's the author of Debts & Lessons (Omnidawn, 2013) and a chapbook, June (Corollary Press, 2006). Her poems have also appeared in 6x6, 1913, Best American Poetry, Boston Review, Critical Quarterly, and elsewhere. She's currently a PhD candidate in Comparative Literature at UC-Berkeley and co-edits Canarium Books.

Joshua Edwards directs and co-edits Canarium Books. He's the author of two collections of poetry, Imperial Nostalgias (Ugly Duckling Press, 2013) and Campeche (Noemi Press, 2011), and a photography collection, Photographs Taken at One-Hour Intervals During a Walk from Galveston Island to the West Texas Town of Marfa (Edition Solitude, 2014). His third book of poetry, Architecture for Travelers is forthcoming from Edition Solitude in November 2014.