In her poignant debut collection, Xialoy Li moves with longing and soulful reflection between her childhood in China during the harsh years of the Cultural Revolution and her life in America. With admirable restraint and a syntax crafted in the spaces between two languages, she brings us to the edge of sorrow and then deftly deflects us and consoles us with lyrical tonal shifts, as in her heartbreaking poem “My First Day in America.” Recalling how her mother “told the nanny to hide / my baby, so that I would / not hesitate to leave,” she sees her face, in slow water, “twitched into a mosaic. / A leaf falls in, / blood red.” This is a brave poet who embraces her journey between two worlds by showing us what a wise and full heart is able to hold—whether eating stir-fired cat while dreaming of ripe figs in a Chinese reeducation camp; penning an elegy to Dr. Li Wenliang, whose Covid warnings were ignored; savoring her husband’s homemade sesame honey pie; or wondering if her departed grandfather might be able to heal her, too, as she tells us, slant, of a goldfinch that settles on a thistle flowerhead, picks “one piece . . . another . . . another . . . until / the air is full of floating silver seeds.”
—Wendy Drexler, author of Notes from the Column of Memory
Xiaoly Li’s Every Single Bird Rising is an evocative and well-crafted journey between places and times, from China and the Cultural Revolution to walks in Central Park to pandemic backyard birthday parties. With a deft command of image and language, Every Single Bird Rising asks questions that resonate long after one has turned the page: What is one’s purpose? How does that purpose interact with the larger world, with where we come from and where we end up, as time passes? As the collection explores possible answers to these questions in lush detail and poignant descriptions, we find the “mist melts the boundaries,” bringing what might at first seem disparate into resounding relief. Through loss and longing, the speaker of Every Single Bird Rising turns again and again to nature, finding grounding and connection, recognizing “particles / mirror each other / no matter / how far apart.” Generously and compassionately written, this beautiful book will stay with me forever.
— Callista Buchen, Author of Look Look Look
This extraordinary book moves between the present and the past filled with personal reflections on the immigrant experience and an historical perspective that includes Mao’s labor camps, the Red Guards, and the provincial poverty depicted in the poem “Reeducation”— we set up a trap using a wok / in front of the chicken coup. / A cat falls to our prayer for meat. Rich cultural strands are woven into the very DNA of this lyrical book filled with a reverence for life and the natural world: an influx of magnolia, peach flowers and rhododendron—the universe is breathing me. In the poem “Poetry in a Second Language,” the voice of her mentor: This is your counter-revolution / You are safe now—sets the tone for the subsequent poems that transform everything, even suffering, into curiosity and gorgeousness.
—Grey Held, author of WORKaDAY
Early in her impressive debut collection, Xiaoly Li asks, “Who can bear to look?” And in a resolute and direct voice she answers the call of that question’s burden. Li not only looks, but peers deeper and deeper into the pain and beauty of the worlds she straddles, the shifting times and places she has lived in and through, as she teases wisdom from unyielding memory. These poems carry the weight of history and testify about good and ill. I will not soon forget the stories she tells, nor the ways her poems work at “building a great wall / of tender hearts / to reduce the wind’s ruin.”
—Todd Davis, author of Coffin Honey and Native Species
Reviews: Elizabeth Sylvia, Barrelhouse 2023