This will be some slippery thinking—some slipping thoughts vaulting over pages, lunging at stars that move faster than I think they should. Quicker than language can catch. Which is how I read Hoa Nguyen’s work—thinking here mostly about A Thousand Times You Lose Your Treasure, but also thinking Violet Energy Ingots. As pure nimbleness of mind. As quickening. And how this has something to do with form.
If just glancing through these books, they seem collections of short lyrics, little songs, brief effusions. And they are—in part. Light and fleeting. Poems as improvisations on sudden coalescences. But that isn’t quite right—they are more like intuitions, sudden insights the poet, listening to dailiness, accords and follows. The things that truly fascinate me though are 1) that the poet returns in poem after poem to that same fount of intuition, a thousand times making the world anew in each poem (thus the bravado of that consistent method), and 2) that the poet includes her reading and research—her material inquiry into the world, what is done there and what has been thought about that doing—as another flash of intuition and insight. Which is to say that intuition can catch fire from a chore—sorting candies or folding socks—or from what seems more purposeful reading and study (say, on the nature of the nine muses, or who Andrew Jackson was).
But these are lyrics in chains that run right through books to their last pages. So they could be read as serial poems. Maybe because they also have such beautiful plain paper covers like Nguyen’s Wave books, I pull Etel Adnan’s Time (Nightboat, translated by Sarah Riggs) and Fred Wah’s Breathin’ My Name with a Sigh (the 1981 Talonbooks edition) from my shelves. Adnan’s poems are without question serials. Wah’s too, but maybe closer to what Nguyen is doing because of so much formal variety within the basic each-page-is-an-individual-poem chain. These books are all favourites and kept close to where I work. But Nguyen has this trick—each poem does have its own unique title—so seriality seems held at bay. Or under erasure. Poems are separate and in series. They are different and the same. Part and whole do not subsume one or the other.
Which seems true to the serial in Jack Spicer’s formation (via Robin Blaser) of the form as comparable to “a series of rooms where the lights go on and off” or “a sequence of energies which burn out” (Blaser 119), only to be lit anew in the next iteration of the series. With Nguyen’s work it might be more accurate to say each poem is a tarot card drawn and placed on the table, the cards giving the poem access to the cosmic Outside, taking dictation from stars’ energies and other radiances.
But—my second point above—I’m drawn to the way the intuitive “readings” of poem after poem in the seriality of A Thousand Times are specifically improvised in the midst of an open-ended documentary project—the poet’s mother’s life during and after her career as a flying motorcycle artist in Vietnam. Documentary can involve intuition and improvisation, documents can be “read” or “scried” or can give access to unaccountable energies welling.
In this documentary series are ghosts (Vietnamese ghost stories recur) and temporal derangements (“unrelated future tense” ), as well as what one might expect in documentary: letters, photographs, and scraps of interviews. The latter are so enjoyable as voices in conversation interrupt poetic narrative—“Are you sure: a bicycle? / A bicycle” (22). And then too there are poems as “notes” on war legacies (“Napalm Notes,” “Notes on Operation Hades”), or “Notes toward a Social History of Vietnamese Music in the Twentieth Century.” There is much more to say but I will simply note that in the most researched poems the spirit of quick inspiration and winged flight still dominates so these poems feel much the same as even the most ephemeral of improvisations in the series. Document does not disrupt vision. It deepens it.
Nothing is exhausted. As Maria Stepanova writes in In Memory of Memory, “[i]n our own history the most interesting part is what we don’t know” (299). The unknown as part and parcel of Spicerean seriality—to gather in what yet remains outside. To be gathered. And the most remarkable thing about Nguyen’s gorgeous body of work is her daring—each page a leap into the unknown riding radiant energies. What A Thousand Times shows is how much this spirit of adventurous and winged inquiry comes from her mother Diêp’s equal daring: “To say you are flying flying fucking flying / on the small French motorbike Hair / also flying and a glamour shot smile” (54).
Blaser, Robin. “The Practice of Outside.” The Fire: Collected Essays of Robin Blaser, edited by Miriam Nichols, U of California P, 2006, pp. 113-63.
Nguyen, Hoa. A Thousand Times You Lose Your Treasure. Wave Books, 2021.
Stepanova, Maria. In Memory of Memory: A Romance. 2017. Translated by Sasha Dugdale, Book*hug, 2021.
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