Altars and Archives

In A Thousand Times You Lose Your Treasure, Hoa Nguyen writes about her mother, Diêp Anh Nguy n/Linda Diệp Lijewski, as if writing about an anonymous young girl she had come across in an old photo album—before she passed away in 2019, before she fled Vietnam for the US, before she became a mother, before she left her stunt motorcycle troupe, before her “old skins shed / as a Silver Snake” (56). Nguyen reflects upon her mother as someone she did not fully know, and consequently upon herself as stemming from and indebted to this mystery lost in death: “Born of thee who dies more / (now I trail myself)” (65). The collection is an altar to her mother, with the appropriate ghost stories, ritual instructions, spiritual songs, and photographs. But if death estranges us from our loved ones, Nguyen shows that life can do the same—another altar for a mother made alter: “I have no sacred rites for you / saving the sacred / grove you grew” (97). Diệp’s wayward life, to borrow Saidiya Hartman’s phrase, becomes an act of protest against the patriarchal nation-state that demands the domestic confinement of women: “Refusing the motherland mother role / Delta girl plotting a runaway plot / No waiting-in-shadows life for us” (6-7).

Like Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, who includes her mother among the revolutionary women she honours in Dictee, Nguyen also offers a mythopoetics of her migrant mother, shown to be spirited, tenacious, and independent. In Nguyen’s writing, as in Cha’s, English is transformed by a non-native tongue: each word becomes heavy like gravel, each line rattling resolutely like a bike chain. The speaker is suspended in these fraught but fertile relationships to Vietnamese as a lost tongue and English as the colonizer’s tongue:

myth and history twist
exile into a tower structure
also called “mouth”
that feeling of headlong
the site of mother
my longing in language[.] (83)

In her desire to reconnect with the Vietnamese sources of ca dao, or folk poetry, Nguyen recognizes how this “failed tower” has come to propel her own poetry. The works of both Cha and Nguyen rotate around intricate astrological and divinatory structures. In A Thousand Times, the tarot card of the Tower is politicized as the crumbling phallic structure that must give way not only to a feminine poetics of absence and non-linearity, but also to the fate of Babel through which language is irreversibly dispersed. In an interview, Nguyen states, “Often I think I write poems toward . . . the loss of my first language, Vietnamese—that that language displacement informs the cadence of sound I seek” (“Never”). But so too was her mother isolated from language, as an illiterate girl in Vietnam and as a non-native English speaker in North America. But Nguyen discovers the language of poetry in these losses:

silt gift
slit mouth spilled open
and grain pours out[.] (62).

In honouring her mother as more than her mother, as someone having  endured the travails of war and history, Nguyen returns Diệp to the vast and hostile landscape of Vietnam during the 1950s and 1960s. Even alongside the odes to her mother’s youth, bike stunts, and romances, the collection refuses to take its eyes away from the decades of incendiary and chemical devastation wreaked upon Vietnam, and Canada’s complicity as the US’s leading arms supplier. In the face of man-made death and catastrophe, language seems to crumble: “Clear the eyes / with chrysanthemum / and how do you protest disaster?” (61). The avant-garde style of Cha and Nguyen represents this effort to find alternate modes of communication in ludic translation exercises, reproduced letters, found photographs, Sapphic fragments. Nguyen’s characterization of Dictee could equally describe the aqueous qualities of A Thousand Times: “The book figures a confluence of language, identities, and forms. . . . As the writing includes, it erases. As it identifies, it defies coherence” (“Stars, Poetry”).

Having immersed Diệp within the collection’s archive of news clippings, military reports, and interrogation transcripts, the poet finally digs her mother out: “and no I don’t want to conduct / Mỹ Lai research and produce it / for you here / Dear Reader” (78). The wayward mother is recovered only to be re-covered, speaking only to refuse to speak, dying only to become spirit.



I am grateful to Hoa Nguyen for our wonderful conversations about astrology, poetry, and Vietnam which make this experience of returning to your work even more joyous.


Works Cited

Cha, Theresa Hak Kyung. Dictee. 1982. University of California P, 2001.

Hartman, Saidiya. Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Riotous Black Girls, Troublesome Women, and Queer Radicals. W. W. Norton, 2019.

Nguyen, Hoa. “Never Go Away: Neustadt Prize Nominee Hoa Nguyen on Her Poetry.” Interview by Dao Strom. Diasporic Vietnamese Artists Network, 9 Oct. 2019, Accessed 25 Sept. 2021.

—. “Stars, Poetry—Part IV: Capricorn, Aquarius, and Pisces.” Poetry Foundation, 31 May 2014, capricorn-aquarius-and-pisces. Accessed 18 July 2021.

—. A Thousand Times You Lose Your Treasure. Wave Books, 2021.

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