Since 2015, a broadside of Hoa Nguyen’s poem “Diêp Before Completion” has hung in the entrance hallway of my apartment. It was a gift from Nguyen when I left Toronto, our shared city. She had moved there with her husband, the poet Dale Smith, from Austin, Texas, having before then lived in San Francisco. Her author bio at that time always began, “Born in the Mekong Delta and raised in Washington DC,” a simple enough statement that speaks twice: Nguyen grew up in the power centre of the imperialist nation that had forced her to leave her home, the initial event in a life of motion. “Diêp Before Completion” was the first poem I read from what would become, in the years following, A Thousand Times You Lose Your Treasure, and the first time I saw a photograph of her mother, Nguyễn Anh Di p, daring and riding trick-style on her motorcycle, now the frontispiece of the new book.
A Thousand Times You Lose Your Treasure is comprised of poems that tell the stories of Diêp’s life—who came to the US in 1968 with her infant daughter and took the name Linda Diệp Lijewski—through mosaicked shards of memory. It is a documentary piecing-together of personal histories both defined by and evading European colonialism and the US-waged war, and a channelling of haunts and spirits that live within the journeying cultures of the world.
Fractured and fragmentary across the page, gapped while melodically twined together through the sonic bind of rhymes, frictional and at times downright wounded by elisions and loss, the poems do not seek a complete or even coherent history, but rather to inhabit the missing, unretrieved, and contradictory spaces of diasporic experience. In “Learning the Đàn Bầu,” which describes the traditional musical instrument, Nguyen writes,
plucked entirely in harmonics
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Fairylike a winged string
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
the pitch bending the way
the voice holds sway
bends towards the Vietnamese voice[.] (18-19)
Through the poem’s voicing, one tone stretches to another and gathers significance in combination, extending into a singular, almost mythic sensation.
The poem is a distillation of Nguyen’s poetics—resonances cast across open space that sound harmonics. The vibrations of a tone spreading outward centrifugally generate emergent forms of clarity, distort, and join with other tones undergoing decay, obscurity, and confusion. In a synesthetic merging of sound and colour, these tones make poetic auras felt: blue flesh, vital red stains, the purple áo dài grief-ghost that shadows over the book, all seeming to ask how many tones comprise memory. “[T]he voice holds sway,” carries on and falters, and in bending finds meaning inherent to poetry’s unique formal modes, a meaning-making akin to the calling, wavering pitch of the đàn bầu. A Thousand Times You Lose Your Treasure holds open the reverberatory space within these soundings: a swelling that is at once an overflow of history’s unspoken voices and the swelling of a wound as it strains towards healing. Out from an array of biographical details and contexts, Nguyen’s life and her mother’s overlie one another, inform each other, the pronouns I, she, and we becoming a vessel in language through which both speak. Presences in the harmonic sway, their voices fuse and merge with those of the deities that their stories conjure. This lyric voice in Nguyen’s poems is expansive and choral, and in the same way one would not ask of a choir, who is speaking?, the poems evoke the irreducible and unlocatable within diasporic rupture. Instead of attempting to make these experiences fully legible or representable, Nguyen’s poems trace the contours of diaspora’s errant song. “Fairylike a winged string”: passageways through the personal, severed by geopolitical crisis and cultural disruption, are rethreaded, and impossible distances (generational, geographical, cultural) are made proximate. Nguyen’s diasporic lyric does not reconstruct her mother’s life as much as it relives and reimagines it, lifting out of Diêp/Linda’s “sole memory” (Nguyen, 113) a complex of memories that go on living in the present. Nguyen’s work has always been marked by dislocation. The lacunae of her lines are the wellsprings of the poems’ semantic and aesthetic powers and a refusal of the sentence’s strictly legislated grammar. In her latest book, this poetics evolves into a mixed language both commanding and broken by her history. Learning the Vietnamese language that she lost as she unlearns the English of her homeland’s oppressor, she writes, “I get things wrong like this” (15); “Lose the word lose / in its original shape // You lose every other word” (8); “Here be chopped things” (60); “I say it wrongly / fake my way” (20); and especially the well-known line, “The past tense of sing is not singed” (20). In this way, Nguyen’s poems provoke in the spirit of her mother: “she the disobey” (11) who “made things burn or break,” enacting a reverse rehearsal of assimilation that uncovers in these breakages a new vocabulary of insight.
“[S]catter the song,” reads the book’s opening poem, “Seeds and Crumbs” (1). The term diaspora developed from the Greek verb to disperse, the prefix dia-, meaning “through, during, across, by,” added to the Greek word for sowing, seed, or spore (“Diaspora”). The motion brought to life in Nguyen’s lyric disrespects proper history’s spatial and temporal orders, embracing the multidirectional waver of memory, trauma, and survival. As she writes, “we sing her story beyond time” (97) and “we sing to / wing again” (95).
Diaspora is the movement of the world’s commons: the migrations of the global poor; the dispossessed; the masses who move, change names and customs; who take and offer refuge throughout the world. Nguyen’s lyric is the beauty of their motion—brave and determined paths that cross rupture and incompleteness and in doing so are not wholly followable. Spore carries another meaning, describing the reproduction “of flowerless plants” (“Spore”). Perhaps language would have it that the world’s poor should be thought of as flowerless, but Nguyen’s poetry shows that we can take language and make art, that facing all loss we risk “a running leap at the song” (21)—that the poem is our treasure.
“Diaspora.” Oxford English Dictionary, 3rd ed. Oxford UP, 2021.
Nguyen, Hoa. A Thousand Times You Lose Your Treasure. Wave Books, 2021.
“Spore.” Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd ed. Oxford UP, 1989.
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