STAN MIR Reviews
Red Juice: Poems 1998-2008 by Hoa Nguyen
(Wave Books, Seattle, 2005)
[First published in The Asian American Literary Review, Vol. 7, Issue 1, Spring 2016, Editors Lawrence-Minh Bui Davis and Gerald Maa]
Blood and Language: The Poetry of Hoa Nguyen
When Hoa Nguyen was a girl she stole the book Ten Thousand Years of Vietnamese Poetry from her local library. As she explained to Joshua Marie Wilkinson in a Bookslut interview, she felt that this book was her “birthright,” and that it gave her “permission to seek poetry.” Growing up during the 1970s in the D.C. suburbs was isolating for Nguyen because there were very few Vietnamese Americans. To make things worse, she said she ended up with the “unfortunate nickname Millie.” Who knew that three letters—HOA—would be so hard to pronounce! Poetry, then, seems to have helped the poet build a sense of self and context that did not completely rely on her immediate surroundings. For Nguyen, this anthology started shaping her the moment she read the first line of the introduction: “The Vietnamese say that they have always been poets.”
Nguyen was born in 1967 in the Mekong Delta and moved to the States just after the Tet Offensive in 1968. Her mother is Vietnamese and her father is white. Nguyen goes on to explain to Wilkinson how she feels, as a result of her being half Vietnamese and an immigrant, “on the outside of the outside of the outside.” In 1997, she had submitted poems to a Vietnamese American poetry anthology project and was rejected. Around the same time Talisman House also solicited her for an anthology of contemporary American poetry, which, as Nguyen put it, is “a rather white context.” At the time of the interview with Wilkinson in 2008, she said she continued “to [feel] outside of editorial gatherings of Asian American poetry.”
Perhaps Nguyen’s exclusion from Asian American poetry happened because her poetry doesn’t read as identity-driven, at least initially. Much of Nguyen’s work draws inspiration from the poetics of the New York School and Black Mountain. These communities, to borrow Nguyen’s phrasing, are “rather white contexts,” and may appear to some as a marker of white identity. One of the earliest poems in the Nguyen’s Red Juice: Poems 1998-2008, published by Wave Books in 2014, “I’m Almost Your Cat’s Pajamas,” seems reminiscent of some of Bernadette Mayer’s short poems. Like Mayer, Nguyen engages colloquial language, but avoids typical syntax. From the start, the poem is funny:
I’m almost your cat’s pajamas
your topsy turvy all over
almost a pinup of yarnballs
at the rest-stop of undeclared wars
(the way Descartes faked it)
give me history or give me
a name unknown in zoology
So I can be anything but the empty doll
all jammed body doll a pregnancy
to be “natural”
But it is also subtly serious, with an off-kilter self. To be the cat’s pajamas is to be exemplary, but here the poet uses words such as “almost” and “topsy turvy,” while putting the colloquial expression in a sexualized context with words like “pinup,” “body,” and “doll.” This self is wobbly not because of eccentricity, but because it is measured against all of the implied standard cultural measurements within the poem. Nguyen also adeptly acknowledges our culture of war with phrases such as “rest-stop of undeclared war” and the near phrasing of Patrick Henry’s Revolutionary War statement “Give me liberty, or give me death!” Nguyen’s rendering of the topsy-turvy self within this culture of war is satiric. After all, Descartes—“I think, therefore I am”—“faked it.” Nguyen does not shy away from calling out the absurdity of so-called cultural and political authority.
In this regard, Nguyen’s work also draws on the work and legacy of Amiri Baraka. In much of Baraka’s work, the self is constantly evolving. The critique of the establishment that he often voiced in his work was an extension of his refusal to be comfortable with the status quo. The first two stanzas of “They Sell You What Disappears” show Nguyen’s distaste for our exploitative globalized economy:
They sell you what disappears it’s a vague “they”
maybe capital T who are they and mostly
poorly paid in China
Why does this garlic come from China?
It’s vague to me shipping bulbous netted bulbs
Cargo doused with fungicide and growth inhibitor
Nguyen isn’t simply critiquing globalization. She wants to understand her relationship to it, so her writing becomes an extension of her thinking.
Recently, Nguyen’s Vietnamese heritage has received more recognition. She has had poetry appear in Black Dog, Black Night, a Vietnamese anthology, published by Milkweed Editions in 2008. And even more recently, her work was included in the November 2015 issue of the journal Boundary 2, with “Dossier: On Race and Innovation.” Her inclusion in these settings stems, I think, from the increasing realization that one’s identity cannot be removed from one’s poetry. As John Yau put it in “‘Purity’ and the ‘Avant-Garde,’” an essay published last April in the Boston Review, “racial identity isn’t something you put on and take off, like a shirt or shoes.” Yau’s essay clarifies the fallacy that there is such thing as the neutral, identity-free writer and reader. There isn’t and most likely there never will be. This means that the question for readers is not whether Nguyen’s work is exemplative of Vietnamese American poetry. The question is how does Nguyen’s poetry depict her particular version of Vietnamese American experience?
In order to answer that question, we might look to “[Ride a Bike to Houston],” an early poem in Red Juice. The poem seems simple and mundane at first:
Ride a bike to Houston
ride and put your foot down
on the pedal unlike a flower
ride my name out Stop
calling me Oriental Rick Wallace
Ride for the Saturnalia
that I always sister
Clang and traffic-ing cars
that will be the death of us
Nguyen’s sense of the line is sharp. By the halfway mark, the speaker says, “Stop,” which fits the action of the poem. But the line that follows the break, “calling me Oriental Rick Wallace,” torques the poem. In a way, the poem reads like stream of consciousness. The key line bursts out, seeming to have no immediate context. But for the person of color the context is ever present, even when it seems the subject is simply a bike ride.
Later in the book, Nguyen’s work becomes more layered. The poem “Eurasiacan,” for instance, deals with motherhood, domesticity, and race:
No mother in body no
body when on the phone
meatballs simmering in sauce
Maybe my baby
Turtles and blue eyes
Throughout this poem, Nguyen touches on the notion of mixing. There’s the blending that cooking requires in the first stanza, but the second stanza shows the poet wondering whether her mixed child will make her whiter.
By the fourth stanza, Nguyen compresses the connection between the action of cooking and her own biology, and the fifth stanza, which is perhaps the poem’s most intriguing, highlights the similar sounds yet divergent meanings of the letters “Ma.” In English, these two letters can be slang for mother, but not much else. Vietnamese is different, as Nguyen shows. This letter combination changes meaning depending on punctuation:
in my mutt hands
Mã = horse
Ma. = rice seedling
Ma? = graveyard
Má = mother
After reading the fifth stanza, it’s easy to see the connection between Nguyen’s wondering whether her multiracial son will “whiten” her and why she refers to herself as a “mutt.” Blood, as the poem makes clear, defines genetic identity, but language defines cultural identity.
Nguyen’s Red Juice shows that the poet’s Vietnamese American heritage has always been present, even when editors and readers may not have noticed. The book also exemplifies the erosion of the faux walls between so-called white (experimental) aesthetics and works written by people of color. More significantly, Red Juice indicates that we need a much more nuanced way to discuss race and poetry. It seems more relevant to look instead at form, content, and cultural milieu, rather than judging one’s genetic authenticity based on what their aesthetics seem to be, or whether their name appears ethnic. It’s impossible to judge one’s background on one’s name. How would Nguyen’s work be treated if the nickname Millie had stuck? Would that name have framed her as white rather than Vietnamese American? These questions matter because they force us to consider how a name—a series of words—at least partially defines how others may view us as individuals. But no matter how one is viewed by others, Yau’s insistence that identity is not “like a shirt or shoes,” that it is irremovable from who we are, is the rule of thumb we should follow. Identity is ever present in a text; we just need to explicate the ways in which it plays out.
Stan Mir is the author of Song & Glass (Subito, 2010) and The Lacustrine Suite (Pavement Saw, 2011). His art and poetry reviews appear in Hyperallergic Weekend and Jacket2.