In Poetry Double Features, poet, critic, and editor Summer Farah moves away from the capitalistic language of “comparative titles” and instead towards the indulgence possible in considering two poetry collections that complement each other. The books paired here are not necessarily similar, but Farah asks: what language, pleasure, or wonder might be uncovered when they are read together? Poetry Double Features is in praise of the beautiful and unruly process of reading, synthesizing, and parsing out connective threads. This month, Farah considers How Do I Look? by Sennah Yee and You Are Not Dead by Wendy Xu.
How Do I Look? x You Are Not Dead
In late spring of 2019, I was sick. After graduating from college, pretty much every ailment my body had been holding back in order to let me reach the finish line took over. Already a homebody, I found myself stuck inside even more. So, not yet employed but no longer a student, I played a lot of Breath of the Wild.
Despite being a lifelong Zelda player, it was the first time I was struck by the difference between my physicality and Link’s; in the world I had chosen to spend my time, I could do so much. I could lift a sword. I could climb a mountain. I didn’t lose my breath just in the trip down College towards Bancroft. I hadn’t really been strong in years, but as I attempted to beat a shrine for the fifth time, I couldn’t help but mourn a life beyond my bed.
The collections I’ve paired feel like two ways of dealing with being sick—Sennah Yee’s How Do I Look? akin to laying in my bed and considering myself alongside the shows I watch, the games I play when I cannot bring myself to do much else; Wendy Xu’s You Are Not Dead manifesting as gathering the strength to take a walk and indulge in the act of noticing, asking every detail to mean something towards feeling better. Both collections are conversational—they feel like a friend is telling me everything in their head. I recommend reading them together on a lonely evening.
One of my ways into poetry was as a lonely teenager on Tumblr, horribly fixated on TV shows and comics; lines of poetry found their way onto stills of my favorite characters, elevating them to a beauty worthy of how much space they took up in my head. When I read How Do I Look?, I feel a bridge between the lonely teenager I was then and the lonely adult I am now; the collection is made up of prose poems (my favorite!), many taking their titles from films. Conversational and interior, they engage with a racialized girlhood filled with the tension of enjoying and witnessing popular art that has the potential to contribute to our harm.
The poem “Blade Runner (1982)” is a succinct two questions: “Am I human? Even if I am not treated like one?” Yee sharply references the saturation of techno-orientalism in cyberpunk—when we visualize a future, what faces populate it? I like the simplicity of this poem; the appeal of many of the other pieces in How Do I Look? is the out-of-breath rush quality that so often accompanies prose poems. This departure is productive, turning the now blank space into an echoing silence. I think of this poem while I play Zelda, and I approach Gerudo Valley; these desert women with their orientalist costumes, villain pirates-turned-allied-warriors—am I meant to ignore their attempts at resemblance? Am I meant to feel empowered if I don’t?
Yee’s poem “Playing GTA V at 4 A.M.” captures the blurring boundaries of real-world and escapism so vividly,
“I’m blowing all my money on clothes and tattoos and I keep stopping to gaze at the sunset–in the game, I mean—and I’m running around with nowhere to go and everyone on my back…I’m panicking about missing the sunset over the beach, but then I realize it’s okay, because the beach will always be there, and actually, the sun is always there; even if I can’t always see it. The thought makes me misty-eyed—in real life, I mean.”
I love the moments of aside! This gentle interruption to remind us what is real and what is not, but it doesn’t matter anyway because the worlds we immerse ourselves in will bleed into our own no matter what. There is a mountain by my house that, when the weather is just right, has a ring of mist surrounding its peak; it looks like somewhere I am meant to explore in Breath of the Wild. When I reach the end of the path I take each day, I look at the mountain, hoping for that mist. Its presence gives me strength. I hope one day I make the trek.
Some of my favorite poems in Yee’s collection come when we leave the screen. The poem “FLORA” reads,
“It is no surprise that I take care of my plants better than I take care of myself…I can go quietly about my life with minimal food and sleep and care, until it all boils over and under my skin and I realize my stomach and eye sockets and pussy are all cavities”
It shares a spread with the poem “FAUNA,”
“Recall that high school biology lesson on relationships: mutualistic, commensalistic, parasitic…Not once did teachers warn us about forming parasitic relationships with our fake friends and gaslighting sweethearts. Not once did we think of ourselves as wild, living organisms. Note how I say ‘living’ instead of ‘existing.’ There is a difference.”
These companion poems fold the natural world into the book’s greater project of analyzing and projecting onto art. The grotesqueness of the body wasting away in “FLORA” strengthens that poignant line in “FAUNA,” “Note how I say ‘living’ instead of ‘existing.’” In many ways, this moment is the thesis of why I so thoroughly enjoy both of these collections—at their core, the distinction they explore is between living and existing.
This sense of decay continues in the poem “THE DESERT,” which asks “What would it be like to die here? What do you want to be when you rot?”
How often have I felt like I was rotting? So often, my sense of autonomy ends at the feeling, rarely pointing towards a positive solution. In the fall of 2021, I was listening to a lot of Mitski. The truth is, I am always listening to Mitski, but one song in particular was the starting song for all of my if-I-am-in-this-apartment-for-one-more-second-I-will-lose-it walks: “Brand New City,” from her debut album, Lush.
The pandemic, as for so many others, changed my relationship to being inside. I was working from my bedroom, I was losing friendships, I was existing instead of living, but could not afford the risk. September, October, and November passed, mourning relationships, feeling aimless in my career, on top of all of the other chronic restlessness that comes with clinical depression, listening:
“Think my brain is rotting in places
I think my heart is ready to die
I think my body is falling in pieces
I think my blood is passing me by”
Whether it’s recovering from a severe asthma attack or PMDD, bodily rot has always felt an apt descriptor for my sickness—parts of you are ready to disintegrate at any second. The finality in the solution, “I should move to a brand new city and teach myself how to die” was, in some ways, what I’d done, shuffling myself and my sadness between various California cities. I could not fathom the second question that Yee raised, “What do you want to be when you rot?” nor the rest of the poem—“I want flowers seeping out of my jaw, snaking around my bones. I want something to grow out of me,” in which from the decay there was potential for life.
Like Yee’s, Xu’s language is conversational; much of You Are Not Dead is built by a consistent lyrical “I” addressing a “you.” This consistency builds momentum, leading to the ending suite titled “WE ARE BOTH SURE TO DIE,” in which nearly every poem makes me tear up. This book is weird with its metaphors and off-beat in its observations; it is one of my favorite collections of all time.
I love Xu’s titles. The poem “What It Means to Stay Here” is a wonderful container for lines like, “I lie in a bed and am away from all / my thoughts. I pledge all kind of things / to the moon, how it speaks but not / to me,” or, “We have a lifespan and O how / we live it out. I don’t know much / about anything. I drink my coffee and wait / for what is next.”
Many of the poems take on the same shape, an un-intimidating rectangle that almost always fits on one page. This is necessary, I think, when you dig in at the line level: observations that make sort of unexpected logical leaps that make sense no matter how odd, like communicating in inside jokes or talking to someone who is pleasantly high. The poem ends with questions: “Where / shall I wander before I finally / am gone? What do I bring back / in my careless hands to show you?” When read carelessly, “What It Means to Stay Here” can be mistaken as a question, and so I like the actual certainty of it against these lines—everything before has been possibilities, of what it means to stay “here,” but the true answer is still to be found; “here,” of course, is ambiguous—I like to read it as Alive, on Earth, Here.
I carry so much of You Are Not Dead in my heart, especially on days in which my person-ness feels most at risk; when I am too tired to hold up a controller and too vulnerable to keep listening to Mitski, there is no balm better than the “WE ARE BOTH SURE TO DIE” suite. I mean this so seriously that I cry every time I read it. I love the way the first line continues the title, a game of poetry yes-and; “WE ARE BOTH SURE TO DIE / And then the anonymous bouquet / of peonies arrives making room / for a little kindness” begins one of my favorites. In the way that Yee’s work indulges my teenage loneliness-fillers, I find myself building a similar relationship with Xu’s work, filling the space of her “I” with various people I love; “we” are in this together. I read, “I feel a sort of awful / regret about animals I have never / seen in real life. Worse, do you worry / you’ll stop caring?” and have a vivid flashback of a dear friend confessing she misses caring about things the way she did when we were teenagers: rabidly and whole-heartedly, hyperfixation to hyperfixation; what is scarier than going from all to nothing? And later,
“please God let
us be real! I am here and love
to tell you. I am wearing that feeling
of being wrong like an old scarf.
Please tell me and tell me and tell
me about the river. Tell me what
birds mean to keep it.”
Oh, that plea—exclamation points are vastly underutilized in American poetics, and what a use they find here. “please God let / us be real!” is so sharp, with the repetition of “tell me;” each beat, I imagine a different voice sharing with me a story. I want to hear every story, I want to hear them all again, let them be affirmations that the prayer will be answered.
The collection’s title “You Are Not Dead” recurs a few times, but perhaps the most notable is in another “WE ARE BOTH SURE TO DIE” poem:
“How best do we correspond
in the darkness of a year? But look the year
rolls over and has given me a new face. Now
you go toward the ocean with that terrible
spirit of discovery. There is getting to know
your body and disowning it. The ocean says you
are not dead. What else do you want
it to announce?”
I return to Mitski to explain my fixation with this stanza: the second verse of “Brand New City” goes, “I think my fate is losing its patience / I think the ground is pulling me down.” I always felt so intoxicated by the idea of the earth recalling me when my body felt spent, when my self was too tired by everything I was putting it through. Here, I find a similar fascination, but in reverse: what else is there to believe, that you still have life to live, if not by the ocean’s decree? Generously, what else do you need from it to keep going?
The second to last poem in the book begins, “WE ARE BOTH SURE TO DIE / But I feel like a person again.” I read this and am filled with unfathomable want. The poem repeats “I feel” in nearly every line, with one interruption— “I feel like what / is before snow. What is before / snow?” I like the way each phrase reaches to define what feeling like a person is—some mundane, “I feel a / little fine,” some nearly nonsensical, “I feel like a porch that / is also a wind chime.” We are both sure to die, but I feel like a person again, and that is so many things. It can be someone who lays in bed for two days. It can be someone who watches Supernatural instead of calling her friends. It can be someone who calls her friends. It can be someone who knows flower names because of video games. There are so many ways to be a person.
I am a reader who takes seriously the questions poets ask me. These days, when I go on my daily walks, Yee’s line repeats: what would it be like to die here? what do you want to be when you rot? alongside Xu’s what else do you want it to announce? These questions balms against what I (affectionately) call my suicide-music playlists (Mitski, mostly, but others, too)—probing, but optimistic. You are rotting; you will die. But even so, you can still be new. But even so, not yet.
It is May, and I am anxiously finishing writing this so I can go back to playing Tears of the Kingdom, Breath of the Wild’s sequel. I am once again in a limbo state—unemployed, uncertain of what I want to do and where my career should go, in a new-ish city, and terribly lonely. I am once again listening to “Brand New City,” wondering if that’s where the answer lies. Perhaps I will go back to being a student. Perhaps something else will grow. This time, at least I have company.
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