wing a string we sing to
—Hoa Nguyen, “We Sing To”
Like all archival investigations, Hoa Nguyen’s A Thousand Times You Lose Your Treasure is haunted. In these serial poems, Nguyen traces her mother Diêp Anh Nguyên’s line of flight as a “Flying Motorist Artist” (11), a stunt motorcyclist in an all-women circus troupe in 1950s Saigon. In assembling her mother’s archive, Nguyen articulates her own diasporic experience through the absences and omissions that haunt personal and historical archives, particularly those shaped by colonial violence and displacement. While Nguyen works directly with source material in this collection—photographs, letters, lessons from a Vietnamese language course, song lyrics, ghost stories—her poetry also explores other material dimensions of memory. Across decades of writing, Nguyen has developed an approach to language and poetic form attuned to how language’s material properties, particularly its sonic resonances, provide access to the liminal space between remembering and forgetting. The documentary impulse in Nguyen’s latest collection should be understood as a formal approach that builds on, rather than departs from, this long-standing attention to the materiality of memory.
In a 2016 Open Book interview, Nguyen discusses her relationship to the Vietnamese language and suggests that our bodies hold language in excess of its communicative function:
I think what operates inside of my poems is that I’m searching for a ghost language. I lost my original language, Vietnamese, a monosyllabic tonal language, due to rupture and circumstance. My only language is English. I think when I write, the poems attempt to recover or somehow express this ghost language, this musical, lost language. It is in my body, but I can’t speak it. Instead I feel the Vietnamese language as a nerve ghost. And the poems become a way for that language to arrive somehow.
Nguyen’s description of “the Vietnamese language as a nerve ghost” echoes a study of “the unconscious maintenance of a lost first language” by McGill University’s Centre for Research on Brain, Language, and Music (Pierce et al. 17314). Using neural imaging, the study found evidence that “early formed language representations are maintained in the brain even if exposure to that language is discontinued.” Just as the archive is haunted by its omissions, Nguyen’s sonic archive negotiates the “nerve ghost” of the Vietnamese language. In Nguyen’s poem “Tones in the Vietnamese Language,” we learn that the difference between “ghost,” “mother,” “horse,” and “tomb” in Vietnamese is a tonal variation: “Ma—level : ghost / M —high rising : mother . . . M —dipping rising horse : Ma?—low dipping : tomb” (25). The English words themselves cohere through assonance, and while this assonance is not a translation of Vietnamese lexical tones, it is an invitation to notice how unconscious connections accumulate sonically: we might hear the echo—or the synaptic firing—of relations across time and space through a poem’s acoustics. Noticing this neuroscientific basis for the link between sound patterns and memory might also put Nguyen’s work in productive conversation with other Asian North American writers, like Madeleine Thien and Ruth Ozeki, who draw on emergent scientific frameworks in their own representations of diasporic displacement and intergenerational memory.
The poem “Netting (Language Ghost)” assembles recollections and memory-objects associated with Nguyen’s mother:
You left a thread and a serious
leather pouch Green lined
several hauntings yellow amber gems
to line it left in the washroom[.] (14)
Throughout the poem, disparate images and visions are taken up and then placed side by side. Instead of feeling disjointed, the poem’s catalogue of disparate images evokes a deep relationality. In part, the poem builds this sense of connection through the successive use of polyptoton, the repetition of words with the same root; the repetition of “line” and “lined” in the excerpt above is one occurrence, but the device appears numerous times in the poem, as in “the mind doesn’t mind” (14) and “shoots to shoot through” (15). Polyptoton builds relations through sonic reinforcement, and its repeated use in this poem weaves a sonic “netting” that gathers the poem’s objects, visions, and quotes together. Reminiscent of Ursula K. Le Guin’s notion of fiction as a “carrier bag,” the archive as sonic net pushes against assumptions that the archive is a hermetically sealed and institutional space haunted by its omissions. In Nguyen’s sonic archive—with its holes, echoes, and tangles—ghosts are free to come and go.
Nguyen, Hoa. “‘I Want the Blur in There’: An Interview with Hoa Nguyen.” Interview by James Lindsay. Open Book, 21 June 2016, www.open-book.ca/Columnists/I-Want-the-Blur-in-There-an-Interview-with-Hoa-Nguyen. Accessed 20 Aug. 2021.
—. A Thousand Times You Lose Your Treasure. Wave Books, 2021.
Pierce, Lara J., et al. “Mapping the Unconscious Maintenance of a Lost First Language.” PNAS, vol. 111, no. 48, 2 Dec. 2014, pp. 17314-19.
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