Poetry is patterned language. “The relationship between pattern and the meaningful disruption of that pattern,” Carl Phillips writes in the essay “Muscularity and Eros: On Syntax,” “gives poetry the muscularity required to become memorable.” And while it is memorable because of its sonic, rhetorical, or imagistic surprise, muscularity also enacts the emotional and psychological transformation of the speaker, their vexed interiority. It also results in the memorable transformation of the reader.
This memorable transformation has been a hallmark of Hoa Nguyen’s poetry since the publication of Dark, a chapbook from Mike and Dale’s Press in 1998, and Your Ancient See Through, a full-length collection from Subpress in 2002. Nguyen’s poems have taught me, a queer and transgender poet of the Vietnamese diaspora, how to import my interiority and experience onto the page. Their muscularity and insistent investigation, refusing the neo-liberal imperatives assumed by other Vietnamese writers of empire, inform my returning to them, to their thinking and magic, season after season as I reconsider what a poem can be and do.
One poem of such magic is “Shred,” published in Your Ancient See Through and reprinted in Red Juice: Poems 1998-2008 by Wave Books in 2014. It is a strophic poem in seven stanzas, which signals at least seven interior movements, and in relatively short lines that concentrate attention on units of syntax and image. This concentration begins with the utterance “we are complicating / patterns” (40). The “we” refers to a collective, perhaps that of the Vietnamese people, and conscripts the reader who must, suddenly, wonder which of their own patterns will be complicated. With the first word, Nguyen ushers a reader into a lyric crisis: Who are we? What are we doing? Moreover, the ambiguity of the first utterance, which can also be read as “we are complicating patterns,” is part of the crisis itself: Is there a difference between who we are and what we do? “Destiny,” another way to frame this ontological dilemma, appears alone beside “patterns” on line 2 of stanza 1. It acts as an answer, suggesting that our patterns shape our destiny, before the stanza breaks into white space.
In fact, this repetition of “we are . . .” and “destiny is . . .” is one of three patterns made and meaningfully disrupted in “Shred.” When it recurs in stanzas 6 and 7, “we are complicating / patterns” becomes “we are here / in our skin” (40), and “destiny // is a big room” becomes “destiny // is a small city.” As “a big room,” destiny may have been purposeful, the way most rooms have a purpose, and it may have been intimate, perhaps eventually claustrophobic, but manageable. As “a small city,” however, one’s destiny is tied to the destiny of others, and while it may still be intimate, there is no way to control or know all of it. An example of metanoia, a rhetorical device signalling a change of heart or mind, this pattern and disruption signals the transformed interiority of the speaker. Because the speaker changes their mind about who “we are” and what “destiny is,” the reader must also revise their understanding of themselves and the figure of destiny.
Revised understanding, or discovery, is for me the chief reason for making a poem. Since revision requires repetition, and repetition is emphasis, Nguyen’s poem proves that lyric discovery is enacted by patterning and meaningful disruption. That every stanza is a couplet—but for stanza 5—is another point of disruption. While couplets signal duality, a dialectic between two forces, stanza 5 is a monostich, a single-line stanza, that calls attention to its isolated utterance: “what days aren’t pinched by absence” (40). While “Shred” is cast primarily in the indicative grammatical mood, this utterance shifts to the interrogative, a question, without the attending question mark. It suggests that the query can barely be asked, that it is, in itself, rhetorical, much like the experience of displaced Vietnamese people. This demonstrates, again, how muscularity not only elevates a poem’s subject towards formal resonance, but also does so by revealing the inner life of the subject.
Finally, the third pattern made and disrupted in “Shred” is point of view. Shifting from the collective “we” to the pronoun “I” in the final line, the poem’s speaker steps on stage to declare, “I could die today” (40). This intensely intimate utterance is at once a revelation of interiority—that because of days “pinched by absence,” talking “like jets missing home,” the speaker “could die”—and a completion of three consecutive off-rhymes: “destiny,” “city,” and “today.” I highlight this moment of disruption, with its relentless rhyme, to highlight also that this poem, its thirteen lines, is both in conversation with the sonnet tradition and a disruption of it. Although it ends brilliantly on what could be a heroic couplet, which typically signals closure and certitude, the omission of a fourteenth line formally and psychologically resists the impulse for closure. It is, to me, Nguyen’s way of reimagining what poetry can do to more accurately enact the experience of Vietnamese people throughout the diaspora, and likewise, it is an example of what Vietnamese poets, and our imagination, can do with poetry.
“Shred,” like all of Nguyen’s poems, is startling. It is stunning. And it remains a lighthouse guiding me to shore.
Nguyen, Hoa. Red Juice: Poems 1998-2008. Wave Books, 2014.
Phillips, Carl. “Muscularity and Eros: On Syntax.” At Length, atlengthmag.com/poetry/muscularity-and-eros-on-syntax/. Accessed 20 Aug. 2021.
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