May 20, 2019

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A Hard Childhood Compressed Into Poetry, With Concision and Heat

A Hard Childhood Compressed Into Poetry, With Concision and Heat
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That said, he has made the right choices about how to write them. They feel at once raw and ruthlessly condensed, as if their first drafts were three times as long. Clichés, redundancies, the sort of details that flesh out a novel, have been sliced away, until even the talkiest prose blocks, those with the cadence of conversation, stand out, word by word: “I can’t stop talking about desire. / I used to think of it as a pane of glass I would press my face against / & then one day it came, one day I fell through.” Other poems look like skinny ribbons, unspooling down the page, or have the rectangular shape, and the segmented structure, of sonnets: variety in form, and intensity of introspection, provides the surprise that Nguyen’s unvarying diction (common words, always) and his inevitable topics cannot.


Like that other charismatic Minnesotan Danez Smith, Nguyen came to poetry through live performance; his fine first book, “This Way to the Sugar,” appeared from a press (Write Bloody Publishing) strongly associated with spoken word. (Smith is, also, a named character in this book; the poets attend a Twin Cities drag show together.) An earlier generation of spoken word artists composed only for live performance; many did not hold up well on the page. For Nguyen — and for others in his cohort — things are far otherwise. The stage gave him directness and an audience, the page — and his own intellect — a gift for concision. Where he gets his best metaphors, only the gods can know:

In my dreams: I am foolish

holding a torch to a block of ice.

I think we were there, he & I

beneath it. I think we survived.

Nguyen’s stripped-down style also makes available pithy, saddened advice, almost along the lines of Philip Larkin, whose poems about hating parties, and attending parties anyway, stand behind Nguyen’s decision to show his face at one more wintry gathering, “to live / outside the warm parameters / of my loneliness,” to make himself present “long enough for everyone to notice / when I’m gone.” Such phrases — and the essaylike prose poems that conclude the volume — might leave you wondering whether Nguyen has not only more verse, but a memoir, or a book of essays, in him.

For now, though, the slim frames of poetry serve him well, and the apothegms, the quotable lines, keep coming: “Be grateful that we bury / our dead & not leave them where they died.” “I think the life I want / is the life I have, but how can I be sure?” “I describe your funeral like a party you forgot to attend. It wasn’t the same without you.” It’s hard for Nguyen to look squarely at his past, but harder for him to imagine a future: “I feel furthest from wanting to live when I think of joy as some kind of destination, a two-story house around the corner with a basketball hoop in the driveway.” It’s also hard to calculate the damage we do to one another, and to our children, by implying that we expect just one life course, and will not comprehend or tolerate others; and it’s harder still — not to mention more damaging — to cut yourself off from your past.

If there is one thread that holds together all the desires and fears in this book, it is Nguyen’s need to see himself not just as someone who has survived his experiences but as someone who can represent, or face, them. Nguyen has another quick metaphor, not about love but about his own writing: “Once, I ran, face first, into a mirror / because I didn’t recognize / my reflection, because I didn’t see a reflection at all.” We read poetry (among many other reasons) to see ourselves, and lives like ours, reflected: If you don’t see yourself in the poems you read, you have to write them.

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