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Violet Energy Ingots
Hoa Nguyen
Wave Books, $18.00 (paper)

Hoa Nguyen’s poetry is not easy. Her style is elliptical and sonically driven, prone to the non sequitur and the homophone. Her poems turn rapidly away from each scene or sentiment they consider, one moment watching flowers bob in the wind, the next rhyming words in a kind of étude, and the next caught in an outburst so emotionally direct we are surprised to see it in a poem at all. We might think we are in comfortable mythological territory in a poem like “Diana Was the Moon,” from her latest collection Violet Energy Ingots, but right away we see we are not:

       Full moon
that air between ears

Brutal was how I put it
You captive in the bathroom

I am staring     not starving
maybe starring     not scarring

I think this is instead a cancer
     cell proliferation

In this short passage, Nguyen puts the moon—symbol of all symbols—into the emptiness of the mind, addresses an unseen interlocutor with words of intimate sympathy, gets caught in a childlike rhyming game, and then leaps into strangely specific medical territory in what could be a wry assessment of an unknown condition, a metaphor, or an inside joke. To follow Nguyen here—deploying so many verbal strategies in rapid succession—is like trying to follow the tip of a fencer’s sword.

Difficulty in poetry can be categorized. Some poems make reference to history and literature on nearly every line; others break language down into barely sensible syllabic mutterings; still others bury their meanings in reticent images. Nguyen’s work combines all of these techniques, but she unifies them with a raw emotional force that more palpably vibrates the deeper one settles into her poems.

To follow Nguyen is like trying to follow the tip of a fencer’s sword.

This force and the sense of psychological intimacy it affords make Nguyen a surprisingly inviting poet, despite how challenging her poems can appear. Joshua Marie Wilkinson says that Nguyen “dislodges the domestic from its normative articulations,” and this technique has reached its culmination in Violet Energy Ingots. These are deeply personal, domestic poems, caught up in household activities, the nuances of partnership and parenthood, changing weather, and the day-to-day turbulences that make up the real terrain of our emotional lives: frustration with loved ones, appreciation for our children, fond but sometimes ambivalent remembrances of the past, and bitterness toward the entrenched injustices of our larger society.

Nguyen does not approach these subjects directly, however. Her poems seem to communicate outward from a subconscious that is organized by quantum probabilitiesof resonance and reference. They are messy, haphazard, and playful. They accrue obsessions—sonic and thematic tics—that come together with livewire resonance like the hum of an electric fence. In “Dear Love Not As One,” for example, she patterns color in a personal address buried in the narrative of a camping trip:

I think of you as pine crust
oak stairs      boys’ feet     free
crystal center

We find red for vivid
fucking     red for birth
blood and my
tongue color    

        Captured me at first

I know      I’m not to be the center
sharply yellow(ish)

Why ask that we sing
          “Build me up

Buttercup, baby”
(just to let me down)

Yellow and red are complexly contrasted with each other. Yellow—in the pine resin, oak stairs, buttercup, and the speaker’s own “center”—surrounds the vivid red of sex, blood, birth, and body, appearing on both sides of the short stanza where those red elements appear. Yellow here feels insidious, inescapable—a sense that climaxes with a song, a haunting, nostalgic earworm that we realize has been playing in the background of the speaker’s mind. The song drowns out the speaker’s own vocalizations until she herself seems to be mouthing its words as her own (notice that the final line dispenses with quotation marks). It seizes control of the poem and suffocates the speaker, as though stilling her in an amber crystal. These lines assemble an extraordinary mimetic moment, one reminiscent of Sylvia Plath’s slowly developing narcosis in “Poppies in July,” and yet even more complex with the color-play it involves.

Sound organizes Nguyen’s poems in various ways, from subtly echoing vowel sounds to nearly homophonic close rhymes that edge on hip-hop. In “Mekong I,” for instance, she twists a series of assonant chains into a dazzling sonic thread:

How to strand       become
mangroves    stranded

and braid your oiled hair

Vivid swoops that coil
a mouth and canal steered

Row from here to there.

She moves deftly from the short “a” sounds in “strand” and “mangrove” to the longer vowels and diphthongs in “oiled,” “swoops,” and “mouth,” the whole section hinged on “braid,” which unites these two sound patterns at the same time that it does heavy symbolic lifting as an image both of femininity and the landscape. The result is a materially and thematically rich exploration of self, history, and geography—all in hardly twenty words.

To perform analyses like these on Nguyen’s poems, however, is to be left with frayed ends. These poems never operate perfectly according to a logical system; the mind behind them is simply too overgrown. If the term I have been using to locate the source of these poems—the “subconscious”—usually suggests Freudian themes of childhood fixation and arrested development, Nguyen’s poems are a refreshing counterpoint: her poetic subconscious is positively adult, balancing an array of mature concerns that include but also go beyond baser impulses such as lust and anger. This psychological range allows for a fair amount of diversity in the collection. Domestic life does figure heavily, but it is the domestic life of a feminist poet and scholar with a specific cultural heritage living in the political turbulence of the twenty-first century, and all of these elements are incorporated—assimilated—into the subconscious material on which she draws.

These poems never operate perfectly according to a logical system; the mind behind them is simply too overgrown.

Thus Nguyen gives us several of what appear to be directly engaged political poems, with titles such as “Machiavelli Notes,” “A Brief History of War,” and “A September Eleventh Poem.” (She has also recently contributed to two politically oriented anthologies, Political Punch and Privacy Policy.) Some of the most familiar political poetry of recent decades relies on realism as a defining force of witness—one might think of Carolyn Forché’s acute focus in her famous poem “The Colonel.” But Nguyen writes from the long alternative tradition of experimental political poetry, poetry that operates by surprising and subverting our expectations in ways that illuminate the paradoxes of political life. In “Who Was Andrew Jackson?,” she offers a short list of statements that alternate banal generalities (“He was poor but ended up rich”) with similarly general accounts of his atrocities (“He was an enslaver of men, women, and children.”). The technique captures the ambivalence modern North Americans often have toward their inherited history of violence—the impulse to compress that history into generalizations in order to carry it around as common knowledge.

In “Eve,” one of her more explicitly feminist poems, the speaker eschews a gesture of protest or empowerment for the brasher opportunity to belittle Adam for his pride: “My man is embarrassed // kicked out / of the world-garden / to become farmers.” The tone of this moment is complex in the most human ways: sarcastic and chiding, yet full of real regret. The speaker does not critique the power of class but briefly appeals to it—insinuating a pejorative connotation of “farmers”—while using an idiom that seems far from feminist discourse: “my man.” The moment as a whole effects a kind of marital squabbling that Nguyen embraces rather than transcends.

With a completely different style, subject matter, and tone, the poem “Hid” addresses Nguyen’s Vietnamese heritage from her distant life in Toronto with a sophisticated tenderness that breaks down into stuttering tautological negation:

Eels & water snakes
½ moon         the moon is halved
and I swear you are dead

The dead hang
       cormorant wings

We watch the special features
they grind       wheeling over Leslie Spit

Can mourn the dead of something
Denuded trees

Am mourning dead not dead

The poem comprises a series of small, smart maneuvers: the sustained theme of “halving,” the violent enjambment between “dead hang / cormorant wings,” the surprising introduction of an indirect object in “mourn the dead of something,” and the suggestion of “A.M. morning” in “Am mourning,” which relocates this mourning within the quotidian. 

Such techniques (and the others I’ve highlighted) evidence a professionalism that is itself assimilated into Nguyen’s concerns: her approach to writing as an expert activity works its way in as a subject. Nguyen writes self-consciously, often retaining revisions or including commentaries on what she is doing. In “Blousy Guitar,” she interrupts herself: “I wrote ‘valley’ when I meant ‘longing’.” In “Red Voice,” she does it again: “Empire seeks power      I wrote that / as ‘Vampire Empire’.” Throughout the book, she rewrites, reconsiders, and explicitly comments on her tendencies as a poet. She also engages with a larger tradition, writing homages such as “PS:,” a riff on William Carlos Williams’s “This is Just to Say”:

If you get this
before you leave

take some California irises
home with you

Put in fridge until spring
Plant in circle

Another poem addresses the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice and yet another reworks Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 117.” In Nguyen’s deconstructed sonnets, rhymes are slanted at such severe angles they barely find tune with each other. In “Sonnet for Mimir’s Head,” for example, Nguyen writes: “I was the song    pip in the tree / is a sustaining stutter star / inside your head     resides there / tells of the crackling    Hung.”

From most poets we expect maybe one or two of these approaches—a focus on identity politics or the literary tradition, on domestic matters or on the landscape. But for Nguyen none of these domains is primary. They all figure into a larger project of articulating the self, a self that is explicitly conditioned by history, culture, ethnicity, politics, literature, and the other entanglements of modern life.

The result is challenging, to be sure. But because the self who is addressed in these poems is such a complete and complex entity—because the poet is exposing all of these areas of her life—our connection with her is accelerated. We quickly fall into a deep trust that whatever she says is earnest to the utmost, is a matter of personal importance. We might not be able to fully articulate exactly who this poet is, but we have an intuitive feeling that we know her well. This intuition affords us some comfort in what can otherwise be perplexing terrain. We feel freer to suspend our need for immediate understanding; we feel encouraged to accept uncertainty as a necessary aspect of both the self and poetry. Though at first glance her work may look too challenging to enjoy, these familiarizing and reassuring effects make Nguyen one of the best experimental poets a novice reader can pick up.

In the end these poems leave us with an abiding sense of affirmation, a sense that life—in its messy assemblage of frustrations and joys—is profoundly necessary. One of her homages, “Poem of First Lines from Tagore Poems,” offers a few direct lines of such affirmation:

Let me never lose hold of this shape
Let me never lose
Life of my life     I shall ever try
Light     my life         the world-filling light
Light    oh where is the light
More life        my love      yet more