Environment And Ritual

The Gathering Song (Finishing Line Press, 2018) by Christina Xiong

“The land spirits are exhausted and starving,” writes Christina Xiong in her debut poetry chapbook, The Gathering Song. Xiong’s poetry is expansive, long-form, big-paragraphed—her feminist poetics driven by the speaker’s memory, environment and daily life. Her poems pay keen attention to relationships, to bodies, and to the making of poems in the temporal, economic and gendered margins. Muriel Rukeyser comes to mind when reading Xiong’s chapbook—even a cursory flip through the pages of The Gathering Song shows a formal resemblance in how Xiong’s poems access the full height and width of the page.

The poems in The Gathering Song are rooted in local time and the natural world around them (“How people tell time is an intimate and local fact about them,” writes Ann Carson). Poems such as “Descanso for the Reborn,” “Rootless” and “Transplant” describe natural scenes at both a specific, human level and at the larger level of landscape. “My small pink cottage was pressed gently / against the face of a mountain,” says the speaker in “Descanso for the Reborn,” and notes how, “Tangled laurel hells and black locust / trees stood guard over the cove.” A “laurel hell” simultaneously describes a plant and a place, usually on mountainsides, where laurels grow together as a thicket or “hell” and which, according to some, once waded into, the only way out is to crawl on one’s hands and knees. The laurel in the poem, “[stand] guard over the cove,” a form of protection and guardianship literally rooted in the land and environment where the speaker’s cottage rests. Natural protection, a theme in “Descanso for the Reborn,” appears throughout The Gathering Song alongside human-made protections and their preceding, and producing, anxiety. Though the reader frequently does not find themselves in a safe place in Xiong’s poems, the speaker of these poems makes and provides safety through her own forms of enacted “ritual”—like the song in the collection’s title, appearing in the poem “The Singing Hour,” which calls the entire family together into sleep:

The window glass cools, a streetlight turns on.

Around me, they nestle, sigh

in sleep. The last note finds me

in darkness.

The Gathering Song has a medicinal and spiritual interest in the natural world that supports a deep awareness of the environment and the book’s memoiristic focus. The poems are also “peopled,” and contain human violences inflicted and suffered—to others, to the self—as well as recovery and revivification. In this sense, Xiong’s collection contains many “nature poems,” i.e. the natural world, the one in which humans commit both acts of harm, love and healing in, is ever-present. Poet and critic Eavan Boland writes, “The nature poem…can look like an arcane code. In fact, the nature poem is volatile, an accurate register of cultural and historic change.” The volatility and mutability of the nature poem, and its simultaneous ability to “accurate(ly) register” human change, shows itself throughout The Gathering Song. Into Xiong’s nature poem rides “a young man on a motorcycle” in “Descanso for the Reborn,” a man who, the speaker observes, “died / last week on The Devil’s Whip.” In Xiong’s nature poem, the speaker “avoid[s] the loaded .38 Super Colt Commander” on her nightstand. In Xiong’s nature poem, human artifacts and materiality (books and paper, painting, photographs) are crumbled, burned, shredded—yet are allowed to enter and have their place and say. Stanzas from “Transplant” demonstrates Xiong’s ability to tell a story rife with the details of place and person, memory and image:

Eight years of Buffalo winters,

Melted into fourteen sweltering summers.

Coastal Virginia humidity clung to me, like illness.

Then Tampa, trees heavy with tangerines,

lilting Spanish drifted through the alley,

bittersweet smoke from a Cuban cigar

wafted through the window-fan.

The air was stale, like the wilted bougainvillea

propped onto the blue porch. Crushed magenta.

Xiong’s reader feels the poem in the tactile clinging of the humidity, the alternating cold and hot of Buffalo winters and coastal Virginia summers, the scents of tangerine and Cuban cigar in Tampa, the breeze and noise of the window-fan. The word holistic (“characterized by comprehension of the parts of something as intimately interconnected and explicable only by reference to the whole”) applies to the experience of the speaker and the reader in the poems of The Gathering Song. How Xiong’s speaker experiences the world around her, through many senses not limited to visual observation, recalls the words of Gloucester in Shakespeare’s King Lear: “I see it feelingly.”

Another facet of Xiong’s nature poem in The Gathering Song is the fact of poverty and (relatedly) itinerant life. In “Rootless,” the speaker, in journalistic, long-lined stanzas, describes different places of habitation and “rootlessness” according to years of her life. For example, under the italicized heading “Homelessness and the road, 22-23,” the speaker describes,

A nowhere place. An in-between place. Creaking pines, purple patchwork

tent, flooded meadow, motel room ripe with mildew—bought with forty

dollars. An all-night truck stop’s greasy grilled cheese and pay-shower.

I emerge reborn from the back lot, crawl from a diesel rainbow, from one

million miles ridden, through a rumbling sea of eighteen wheelers.

The poem’s lyric resides as much in nature (“Creaking pines, purple patchwork / tent, flooded meadow”) as in the truck stop and pay-shower, the rainbow located in the spilled diesel. The language of rebirth surfaces, but it is a rebirth that places a high value on origin and on the places the speaker’s body has had to be through necessity (“motel room ripe with mildew”). The “rumbling sea of eighteen wheelers” is an epic image for the speaker’s narrative of self-birth, self-travel and self-finding—these are the sources of herself, here is the sea—even so, the beauty of the images do not defray the reality of the speaker’s suffering and journey.

To acknowledge the presence of poverty and class in Xiong’s poetry is also to acknowledge the word “labor,” which doubles as a description of work and the physical experience of birth. As though to aid the reader in these connections, “Labor and Division,” a birth-narrative poem written in first-person, comes just before the poem “Doris,” a poem about the speaker’s mother and her (factory) labor. In “Labor and Division,” the speaker confesses, “Motherhood opens something up / that cannot be contained by multiple sutures / and requires two blood transfusions.” The concepts of class, gender and (later, briefly) race not only inflect the environment of Xiong’s poem, they are the environment of the poems. But the concepts constantly shift and refocus, and motherhood, inflected by class and work, in turn, inflects. To return to Eavan Boland on the nature poem, who wrote (of Sylvia Plath): “This is not a poet being instructed by nature. This is a poet instructing nature…this is a speaker with a new kind of control: able to command the natural world because she herself is generative of it. As a mother with her child—at the very center of that world—she can speak about seasons and times with a new freedom and invention.” Boland is helpful here in outlining the power of a holistic poetics, specifically as regards women poets, parents and caregivers. But Xiong is not a poet bent on commanding the natural world but of living in it, and the critical key in the above quote from Boland must be that of participation and generation (as in: creation, making)—qualities present in many of the poems in the chapbook’s second half (such as “Grief in Absentia,” “Sorting Season,” “Clean”) that delve into domestic spaces, memory and ritual.

In the poem “Ritual,” the speaker’s ritual is recounted and described in steps to its reader—that is, it is given to its reader as spiritual-anthropology. The labor (again) of the ritual comes into focus as a force affecting human bodies and even human spirit. The poem begins, “When I get the call that another relative has died,” and each of the poem’s four stanzas describe a particular and specific act both against the weight of grief and for the purpose of grieving. Each final line ends with the anaphora, “Within an hour,” e.g. “Within an hour I have a golden fragrant loaf,” “Within an hour the bathroom is disinfected and sparkles,” “Within an hour my bed is made with dryer-warm blankets,” “Within an hour, I climb into bed cradling a box of Kleenex.” The poem instructs its reader in the experience of time and work as ritual in the face of death—is it four hours, and four acts? Or are all acts done in the same hour? The answer seems unimportant, the work—the ritual—itself the gift. The labor of the home, from marriage to leaking roof to writing poems, is a participation in an environment where many parts (like the aging roof and the 1920 pine floors) precede the speaker or are beyond her control (like the gendered violence in “Tommy and Stupid Girl”). The poems of The Gathering Song instruct nature, but they do so through the speaker’s own actions and creations rather than through overt control or attempts to manipulate the world and persons around her. The Gathering Song depicts a radical making of the self as situated among others and responsive to the natural world—as participating in order to make its own music and, through its music, to gather others.