Hoa Nguyen’s “Languageless” Poetics

Hoa Nguyen’s work examines the ruptures of language, resists conventional syntax, and centres on the liminal blur of meaning. Here, I will highlight two energetic fields for these experiments: her engagement with the English language as a person of the Vietnamese diaspora, and her intuitive divination work. 

Born in Vietnam, Nguyen grew up in the US speaking English. Though not bilingual herself, her use of language recalls the slight displacement of familiar syntactical patterns that one hears from non-native speakers of any language. In her book As Long As Trees Last, a good example is “Agent Orange Poem”: 

What justice foreigns for a sovereign
We doom in nation rooms

Recommend & lend      resembling fragrant
Chinaberry spring

Here we have high flowers    a lilac in the nose
“The Zeroes—taught us—Phosphorus”

and so stripped     the leaves to none[.] (4)

This poem, subtitled “[a]fter Emily Dickinson,” draws on Dickinson’s pared-down syntax and lineation. Nguyen adds her own wordplay, denominalizing/verbing the nouns “foreign” and “doom,” shifting abstractions into action. The poem is political commentary, a nature poem, and a remix of Dickinson, all in forty words, and much of the work is done here through breaking noun/verb conventions in a way that sounds like non-native speakers grappling with parts of speech.

Nguyen’s play with liminal spaces in language is reinforced by her interest in divination and the use of the intuitive in poetic composition. In an interview I conducted with her in April 2021 , she discusses the important role of both tarot and I Ching divination in the composition of her most recent book, A Thousand Times You Lose Your Treasure. I ask her what had surprised her about her trip to Vietnam while she writing the book, and she recounts that she was there during the festival Tết Nguyên Đán, “which is a time of year in which everyone’s away with their family . . . I was independent there and I was able to walk around languagelessly and quietly.” While out walking, she happened upon the Wall of Death, the motorcycle stunt-riding attraction that her mother had worked in before Nguyen was born, set up temporarily for Tết. This chance moment set in motion a series of recognitions that became integral to her composition of the book. She recounts having had a tarot reading before her trip and pulling the Tower card:

I thought, “oh no, I’m going to feel like I’m crashing to the ground.” Instead it came in the form of this performance silo, which looks, from a distance, like a tower. The tower doesn’t necessarily have to be catastrophe. It can also be synchronicity, surprise, being struck by a sudden recognition. So that’s how the tower actually arrived in my experience being in Vietnam. I also recognized the Tower card as connected to the I Ching hexagram called Chen, or Thunder. I draw the title A Thousand Times You Lose Your Treasure from the hexagram, the same archetype as the tower. It’s convulsive change, and it made me realize that’s also the story that I’m telling about this period in history, about my mother, but also about many, many, many people, who have had those kinds of experiences that are directly related to empire, imperialism, toxic masculinity, organizations, and that the tower becomes an expression of. Empire-building is so toxic; it has to be dismantled or it just explodes from its own toxicity.

Hexagrams figure in the book overtly as a title for one poem, “Shock Fate | Hexagram 51,” and Thunder also appears in “‘O My 4FH Planes’ (Cries of Johnson: A Folk Opera)”: 

o you powerful Thunder Chief
God of Thunder himself

o crusaders o flying sabres
o sky raiders[.] (75) 

Here the language is derived from a North Vietnamese folk opera that Nguyen found in a French anti-war documentary; it floats in the air like thunder, like US Air Force jets, like the language that comes if one listens for it while reading tarot cards or casting I Ching coins. 

Divination, like speaking a second language, requires careful listening and a willingness to accept what is heard in order to understand. These methods that inform Nguyen’s poetic practice are in line with Charles Olson’s “Projective Verse”—all drawn on the intuitive acceptance of language as it arises, even when that language is mysterious, associative, or syntactically blurred. 


Works Cited 

Nguyen, Hoa. As Long As Trees Last. Wave Books, 2012. 

—. Personal Interview. Apr. 2021. 

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

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