Souvankham Thammavongsa’s first book of poetry is called Small Arguments. What is an argument? A kind of thought structure. A structure in which one thought—called the thesis—is supported by an organized set of other thoughts—called reasons.
In Small Arguments, the thesis is usually a thing. The poems think about things by attending to them.
There is a form of poetry which has been called the thing poem (Rilke) and the elemental ode (Neruda).
It focuses on a particular. But it thinks in images linking the particular with other things. For these reasons, the elemental ode may be described as a hybrid genre, one that flickers back and forth between this particular and its internal relations.
Its primary method of understanding is metaphorical: Zwicky’s nuthatch is seen as a tiny crumhorn, “beady and antique,” Neruda’s handknit socks are seen as sharks, Crozier’s clothes hanger is seen as a question mark, Rilke’s broken statue is seen as a gaslamp turned down low.
If poetry had an essence, the elemental ode would be its distillate.
A F I R E F LY
casts its body
into the night
against darkness and its taking
It is a small argument
lending itself to silence,
a small argument
the sun will never come to hear
unable to hold against
such tiny elegant speeches,
opens its palm
to set free a fire
its body could not put down (41)
The poem utters light, over and over, not as noun but as imperative.
It also makes a promise. In Thammavongsa’s third book, Light, a colossal squid stares into the lightless abyss, its eyes, the size of dinner plates, waiting for the rarest photon.
The dragonfly’s eye is composed of roughly thirty thousand facets, which generate a complex mosaic of imagery. While the human eye is sensitive to combinations of only three colours (red, green, and blue), the dragonfly’s eye exhibits as many as thirty sensitivities (including to ultraviolet) (Futahashi et al. 1247). For the dragonfly, “the eyes / are the heaviest, / the most difficult / to carry” (56).
Unlike the human eye, it cannot close.
Inside its “small cathedral” (57), the snail is praying. The trees argue with gravity, the grasshopper keeps asking heaven for a place.
(In his lonely little mental cell, Descartes thinks that his inability to imagine the difference between a chiliagon and the shape of a dragonfly’s eye is evidence of the body’s existence.)
Meanwhile, growing up in the house without books, the poet never doubted it.
One of the first philosophers, from whom no writing survives, tells us that all things are full of gods.
Thammavongsa’s poems defend the souls of fruit, insects, elements. In some, there is an almost forensic tenderness.
The poet slices into the worm and names and labels its parts.
The snow falls into “an open petal, / a trellised stem, / a metal fence” (39).
In Found, the speaker turns the same intense attention toward something rescued from the garbage: a father’s scrapbook from a Lao refugee camp.
Seven of the poems are named after months in 1979. Each consists in a single diagonal line striking out the entire month. The wordless austerity of a petroglyph. If we look closely, we can see that each line is unique. We see what it means.
In How to Pronounce Knife, there is a printer who makes his own paper and mixes his own pigment for Lao wedding invitations. Each invitation is an individual. “He wore a headpiece with jeweller’s magnifying glasses attached and went over every single letter on the invitations. He was determined to get the smallest of details exactly right . . .” (87).
Like Rilke under the inspiration of Rodin, like Neruda with his columns, his “slim stalks of celery,” Thammavongsa sculpts her poems as though they were things. And they are things. The physicality of the poem matters, the exact placement of each letter on the graph.
“A Firefly” is fifty-six words shaped into three unstopped sentences. The rest is empty space. In its spareness, the poem is a spark in the void.
The first two sentences form the two quatrains of the octave, the third takes the entire sestet. An Italian sonnet, composed according to organic prosody. The volta marks the moment when darkness lets go.
The poem’s most important rhyme—argument / darkness—forges a lyric harmony between the firefly and the massive force it resists.
The poem makes an argument for attending to the smallest things.
It argues not by debating, but by bearing witness.
Crozier, Lorna. “Clothes Hanger.” The Book of Marvels, Greystone, 2012, p. 25.
Descartes, René. “Sixth Meditation.” Meditations on First Philosophy, translated by Ian Johnston, Broadview, 2013, pp. 78-89.
Futahashi, Ryo, et al. “Extraordinary Diversity of Visual Opsin Genes in Dragonflies.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 112, no. 11, 17 Mar. 2015, pp. 1247-56.
Neruda, Pablo. “Ode to My Socks.” Selected Odes of Pablo Neruda, translated by Margaret Sayers Peden, U of California P, 1990, pp. 175-79.
Rilke, Rainer Maria. “Archaic Torso of Apollo.” New Poems, translated by Edward Snow, North Point, 2001, p. 183.
Thammavongsa, Souvankham. Found. Pedlar, 2007.
—. Light. Pedlar, 2013.
—. Small Arguments. Pedlar, 2003.
—. “The Universe Would Be So Cruel.” How to Pronounce Knife, Bloomsbury, 2020, pp. 85-92.
Zwicky, Jan. “Small song for the voice of the nuthatch.” Thirty-seven Small Songs and Thirteen Silences, Gaspereau, 2005, p. 20.
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