Even before turning the first page of Khaty Xiong’s beautifully composed chapbook Deer Hour, we are given a visual clue as to what we’ll find inside. The cover image shows a large and noble buck suspended between an expanse of grey sky above and yellow field below. The animal, balanced between the two seemingly endless landscapes, defies and resists enclosure. Much the same way, Xiong’s poems refuse to be confined to definitive beginnings and endings, and instead hover, suspended on each page. Even before turning the first page of Khaty Xiong’s beautifully composed chapbook Deer Hour, we are given a visual clue as to what we’ll find inside. The cover image shows a large and noble buck suspended between an expanse of grey sky above and yellow field below. The animal, balanced between the two seemingly endless landscapes, defies and resists enclosure. Much the same way, Xiong’s poems refuse to be confined to definitive beginnings and endings, and instead hover, suspended on each page.
Throughout the collection, the first line (or a fraction of it) often serves as each poem’s title, immediately inviting readers into the thick of the poems. Although periods and commas are rarely used here, the dash is used in nearly every poem, often several times on a single page. In the instance of the chapbook’s first poem, a dash is used before the first word and after the last word of the poem, suggesting, perhaps, that there is much more to the poem than we can physically see. The effect this has is significant, as it requires that we suspend our desire for closure, and open ourselves to the possibility that a poem may continue to live off of the page.
Perhaps poetry is a way for humans to deal with uncertainties, and to stir our thoughts and memories, our origins and ancestries into something tangible and concrete. Xiong’s first poem here gives meaning to the action of writing:
—we write to come
to what so many
stare in wonder—
to make a plot—
to rotate the storm—
This is poetry with purpose. The line “to make a plot” invites itself to dual interpretation. We can use writing to weave stories from language, but we can also use it to give thoughts a physical place on the page, a plot of parchment to call their home. We see this again in “([an]other revelation)”: “Today, the air grows dense. I press here / & there to recite, to document again & again.” In the next poem, we are told, “We’ll keep entering the spaces of our ancestors / —wade through the marshes of stories.” Later in the same poem, “The world as we know it builds for the comfort of / ghosts.” We revisit the stories of our past, and while some of our animal counterparts may be content with the unknown, may be “one with the dark,” we may always find the need to search for answers.
Deer Hour acknowledges that we are sometimes “unable to reconcile / the wild & the not-wild.” While some of our actions are calculated, precise, and purposeful, others seem to come from something within us that is animalistic and bound by instinct. In “An overlord rises . . . ,” the speaker leans into the ground, howling, and asks:
how do you receive
my thumb alone controlled
by nine separate muscles
the larynx by animal will
This suggests, perhaps, disengagement between our physical body and something else, something wild, deep within us. In “The sun as we do goes,” we are told:
When we catch prey / it is
the all-knowing / anatomical
plan just as
a cat drawing to its mouth
the prey in this / common
We have our instincts and somehow know what we must do to stay alive. In “([an]other revelation)” we accept that “The hand was formed to hold a weapon— / to drive away mystery from the natural world.” We resist the unknown as though we wish to conquer it. This resistance is again portrayed in the next stanza: “The human voice often returns “like this” you say, turning / from the soil—becoming full of form: unpalatable.” Form, both of our language and of our own physical bodies is a limitation and enclosure.
In “In the winter,” the second poem of the collection, we are invited to consider our vulnerabilities as humans:
In the winter
you begin to understand
these places are not for you.
your own body to help you
to collapse inside quietly—
we don’t know anything.
It is in the extremes of winter that we become aware of the fragility of our own bodies. The statement “we don’t know anything” ends with one of the few periods we find in this collection. The punctuation gives this statement truth, power, finality. If there is anything that we can state with ultimate confidence, it is that our existence is stricken with mystery. In “Praise the storm, its mechanism,” it is the “red cedars whose secrets keep us logging.”
Khaty Xiong’s Deer Hour utilizes form, but refuses to be infinitely bound by it. The poems here seem to live just as often between the pages as they do on them. It’s a book that employs language, yet acknowledges its limitations. These poems invite us to consider our vulnerabilities and yet resist them. Deer Hour is a book that pushes and pulls, while its secrets keep us reading.