Just when you think you’ve settled into one of Hoa Nguyen’s poems, meaning slides and opens to fresh possibilities. In a recent interview with James Lindsay for Open Book, Nguyen says she “look[s] for the ways that language can slip and slide visually and aurally.” In one sense, this slippage is an engagement with the materiality of language—her playfulness undermines language’s stability, its commodification. In another, it’s her own deeply layered relationship with language:
I think what operates inside of my poems is that I'm searching for a ghost language. I lost my original language, Vietnamese, a monosyllabic tonal language, due to rupture and circumstance. My only language is English. I think when I write, the poems attempt to recover or somehow express this ghost language, this musical, lost language. It is in my body, but I can't speak it. Instead I feel the Vietnamese language as a nerve ghost. And the poems become a way for that language to arrive somehow… No, it never arrives. It's always in the act of reaching.
Nguyen’s new collection Violet Energy Ingots is out this week from Wave Books and the act of reaching seems an apt way to describe the collection, both in terms of Nguyen’s project and what it demands of its reader.
Nguyen’s poems are lived in, lived through, woven into the everyday. This dailyness is sometimes domestic, but never solely—it’s political, spiritual, and these are intimately connected. The collection’s opening lines set up her approach to inhabiting contemporary life through language.
light & fragile
Time like a ball and elastic
so I can stop burning the pots
wondering yes electric stove
In “Headless or Head,” we wonder at the “the place of death/ and lentil burger dinner.” To open home-life to an interconnected social fabric is a subversive idea. Nguyen puts herself at the center of her work, but if it’s in conversation with a feminine confessional mode, it destabilizes that voice and offers fertile alternative—a feminist participatory mode, as therapeutic for society as for the poet. In “The Whiteboard,”
The whiteboard says ‘Vag Bleed’
I read Anna Karenina
If our mother is a waitress
Trees I gave them names
In Nguyen’s work, the poet’s interior experience is not intellectually distant from common contemporary experience, which is perhaps why Nguyen often describes herself in the act of writing in her poems. This isn’t just to be meta—it’s an intimacy that ties a common experience, like burning pots, to critical thinking about our contemporary situation, the products of colonialism, consumerism, and the whole ugly lot. Observe the shift in “A September Eleventh Poem,”
Can cry and alarm
“You seem mad at me”
(that’s my boy to me)
Cry with an expat
expression and strange tears after
Cry for distant girlhood widowed friend
also many dead alive relatives
and what history A colonial victory
fucked as if
Like a film with short takes and fast cuts, her use of line is awake, pared down to the essential, as if to leave what is no longer of service. Nguyen’s open form breaks borders between poems, leaving them open in conversation with each other, the reader, the world outside the poem. The slip and slide of Nguyen’s collection is also rooted in repetition, accumulation, and archetype, which sews a transcendence across the entire work. Her intricate vocabulary of symbols seems closest to the ghost language Nguyen describes. The collection is punctuated by the seasons—a very eco-oriented structure, but also deeply symbolic of the cycling self. Hearts are suggested throughout as tomatoes, catalpa leaves, candies, cake. Spiders, symbols of growth and the ability to construct circumstances, weave through several poems. Recurrent dreams underscore the fluidity between the outside and inside of the poet’s experience.
Like a koan or meditation, Violet Energy Ingots encourages its reader to return and reconsider. But that’s not to confuse this book with a passive rumination or proselytizing. To read past the colloquial and be pulled into the complex space of the poem demands work, and there’s a fearlessness in this collection that trusts we’ll make the reach.
Claire Farley is a doctoral student at the University of Ottawa and co-editor of Canthius. Her poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Arc, The Puritan, Ottawater, (parenthetical), among other places. She is also the 2016 recipient of Arc's Diana Brebner Prize.