by Allen Means
When I was in elementary school, I was best friends with a little girl who loved trees. She loved them so much in fact, that she would cry when other children plucked leaves from their branches. She used to tell me that the roots of trees were their hands, buried deep in the earth. The way she described it was like their tree-ness was simply an accident of nature, and only by chance were they alive and quiet instead of alive and tumultuous (like us). At the time I didn’t understand it, especially when she would make me ask to take their flowers or lean against their trunks, but I knew I loved her kindness. I assumed I had to think of the trees like people in order to understand, imagining that the trees were once children who had pressed their fingers too far into beach sand, letting it climb up their forearms and elbows, and been fossilized just like that. Their roots and branches just limbs.
In beginning to read Esther Vincent Xueming’s debut poetry collection, Red Earth, I could not help but imagine the speaker as my dear friend, someone with an incredible empathy and a powerful vision to share. Red Earth is an admirable account of our planet’s condition and a kind offering of hope and healing, seeking to transform not only our connection to the earth but our connections to one another.
This collection of ecopoetry is sliced gently into three parts, Dream fruit, About love, and Pilgrims, each dedicated to their own meditative lens, although more largely connected by a preoccupation with the vast and unknowable. In her poems, Esther Vincent Xueming embarks on a search for lost roots— familial, spiritual, and metaphysical— through reflections on family, memory, art, nature, and poetry.
Various pieces in the collection include dedications from the poet to those (people, animals, places, poems) in her personal and artistic life, something that becomes noticeable as part of the foundation on which Red Earth was written, in its abundant practice of giving ode and acknowledgement to that which gives and inspires. These dedications come in a form that differs from poetry that often seeks to “capture a moment.” Because while Xueming has a gift for reflection and description of life’s intimate moments, these poems seem to contain no desire for ownership, but a desire to cherish and give.
The poem, "Crossing" is a tribute, after William E. Stafford's "Travelling through the Dark," that provides a devastatingly gentle remembrance of a deer put to death. The lines "And though I never / knew her, I want to remember" express a dedication to preserving life, even of those we do not know. This collection of a memory is meant to affirm and honor a life lived and is followed by a section break and the beginning lines "Imaginary friend, let me resurrect / your broken body from the dirt and ash" (28). The speaker of these poems has a powerful sense of energy and vitality, finding and making connections to others through our shared life and shared soil. Xueming’s poems seek for a way to not only preserve, like the photograph in "Crossing," but re-document and "resurrect" the life that might otherwise be missed or forgotten. It is a deeply admirable feature of the poet in this collection, in her attempt to give and create space for that life, and provide us a mindful, loving look into what it means to reflect rather than capture or take.
"The Blue Mountains" is another poem that gives us insight into that reflection of moment, in which the speaker recounts her past home in Australia and attempts to grapple with the news of its devastating wildfires.
"Australia is burning, and the mountains of my memory
are turning blue. I think how this poem
could be a leaking hose running out of water
to quench a dry and angry land. But I also think
how it could be brimming, undefeated, full
of life in its last breath before the raging dark." (57)
There is a kindness in this reflection. In the sentiment that poetry, perhaps, may provide a testament to that which has existed or lived. And while a poem might work to amend or to advocate, it might also, in its simple extension of words, work to preserve memory of— to instill the respect and honor of attention, re-documenting the fullness of "life in its last breath."
In the last section of the book, in a poem called, "Monsoon," the speaker recounts an experience during monsoon season, in which the speaker describes the relationship between the environment and the people who must both labor under its conditions.
“The southerly winds have arrived,
and with them, occasional showers and thunderstorms
washing the afternoons down with the shingle of rain.
They will stay for four months, returning again
next June. Our plants rely on this gift of seasonal rain
to survive. We try to care for them, inventing a way
to collect the rain with a wooden pole and a small bucket,
fourteen floors above the ground. In another place,…” (83)
In this poem, the speaker spirals slowly from her account of the season into a recount of a specific memory, in which an unknown temple keeper offers her shelter from the wind and rain beneath his red-roofed temple (84). This sweet, touching narrative then plays out with a tinge of irony, in which the temple keeper kindly takes the speaker’s shoes and keeps them dry beneath a 'No Shoes' sign.
In a book that so highlights a suffering environment at the hands of humanity, it is touching to see how Xueming approaches the world’s condition as one that is complex and multifaceted. In all its grappling with the vast and unknown, Red Earth still comforts with its attention to the sweet, humble moments of humanity where those that are connected to and by the earth can still find hope in the kindness of others.
And although the poems in this collection still seek for roots, for peace, for belonging, for wholeness— they are grounded in moments that offer rather than take. “The Red Earth” provides and contains life, but the speaker documents, cherishes, and collects in an attempt to connect with the earth and give back. Like a dear friend who asks us to respect and honor, Esther Vincent Xueming's Red Earth is tender and thoughtful in its craft and attention, drawing connections between us through the inhale and exhale of an earth that is just as alive as we are.
Allen Means (he/him) is a queer poet and writer from Boulder, Colorado, where he earned a degree in Creative Writing and Japanese. He currently resides in Miami, Florida, where he is pursuing an MFA in Poetry.