who wants to hear
about your Asian North American experience anyway
if I write flowery and incomplete
We bird you to the sky and suffering released there
We cry city mountains
I came to
tame with a song bowl
a sung swap to dynamite
the arthritic as an
—Hoa Nguyen, A Thousand Times You Lose Your Treasure
To read Hoa Nguyen’s 2021 A Thousand Times You Lose Your Treasure within the context of the legacy of the Vietnam War is to register the many received narratives and cultural pressures the book writes against. For years, the main North American depictions of Vietnam (a country, like Korea, where the name alone is often used as a synecdoche for a US war) would feature tales of heroic acts or moral anguish of white “men fathers and soldiers” (Nguyen 57) against a backdrop of anonymous suffering. More recently, accounts by Asian and Asian North American writers have given detail and contour to lives previously blurred into background. Yet even now, pressure remains to render trauma in ways readers can easily recognize and catalogue.
In Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning, Cathy Park Hong describes “[t]he ethnic literary project” as “a humanist project in which nonwhite writers must prove they are human beings who feel pain” (48). In thinking about A Thousand Times You Lose Your Treasure, I find myself returning to the scholars and writers who helped me understand what was so vital about Harryette Mullen’s similarly experimental, sound-driven work.1 Like Mullen, Nguyen offers a crucial challenge to what Sianne Ngai describes as the “underlying assumption that an appropriate emotional response to racist violence exists, and that the burden lies on the racialized subject to produce that appropriate response legibly, unambiguously, and immediately” (188). It is against this pervasive pressure to render racialized trauma in a way that invites the immediate comprehension and empathy of a white reader that we must consider the stakes of Nguyen’s bold reversals of focus, disruptive collage aesthetics, and extravagant punning and sound play.
At the centre of the book is Nguyen’s mother Diệp, who left home in 1958 to join an all-women stunt motorcycle troupe. While Nguyen in no way glosses over violence, deprivation, and trauma, her eye is on the acts of courage and agency of this woman who “took a taste of earth / held hands on the Wall of Death” (23). Nguyen writes from an archive, both personal and public. The book includes reproductions of photographs and correspondence as well as snippets of ghost stories, song lyrics, magazine copy, language textbooks, newspaper headlines, and military statistics. Over and over, Nguyen insists that we recognize how partial, how incomplete this archive is. While memoir (or even consistently narrative poems) might suggest that history, or at least an individual story, can be fully known, these polyvocal poems of juxtaposed fragments emphasize gaps, leaps, and questions. Sometimes a key signifier is missing: “when asked about the / of the past: the skin she quit” (92). At other times we observe the questioning dialogue between mother and daughter—“Ride a bicycle // Are you sure: a bicycle?” (22)—or a parenthetical statement pointing to an unresolvable contradiction: “how is this possible? the letter was written in March” (80).
While Nguyen’s collage aesthetics foreground the lacunae in both archive and memory, they also draw attention to language as shared material, used material. As I recently instructed MFA students writing poems inspired by Nguyen’s work, “Imagine yourself arranging and gluing together gum wrappers, scraps of gold paper, torn recipes from an old cookbook, and the obituary section of the newspaper. You want them to add up to something together, but you also want their diverse origins to be detectable on some level, for those origins to be part of the meaning-making.” Nguyen is never less than keenly attentive to the connotative baggage each word carries. “What lies ahead / rainbow // rainbows / who cares” (1), the first poem reads, evoking all the associations with future promise implied by Doris Day singing “Que Sera Sera” but also foreshadowing Agent Orange and the other “Rainbow Herbicides” that caused so much destruction and pain.
If connotative history is one way we experience language as material, sound is another equally crucial way. Consider the following passages:
gold looks cheap the color of loss
Joss stick & paper
smoky bundle trick &[.] (8)
Skully sag-faced Why build the nest
on the sea when your name means
scree serene[.] (35)
slit mouth spilled open
and grain pours out[.] (62)
Such density of sonic echo nudges us towards puns, mishearings, double entendres, and the anarchic instability of language, sources of both anxiety and pleasure. Such rich aural textures make you “meet your mouth, feel your face, and hear the hum in your head as you pronounce each word” (369), as Jessica Lewis Luck puts it in an essay on embodied cognition. This embodied engagement through sound also explains why I find these poems so moving even as they slip and elide the knowable story at every turn. These are poems that live in the searing details of peripheral memory, in the hum of a throat awakened by sound, in the “dragon tongue drum / and leatherette clasp purse” (Nguyen 63).
1 For more on sound play and ambivalent emotion in Mullen’s work, see my article “Reading Affect in Harryette Mullen’s S*PeRM**K*T.” It’s also worth noting that Nguyen studied with Mullen at Naropa and has taught her work in one of her celebrated living-room workshops.
Hong, Cathy Park. Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning. One World, 2020.
Luck, Jessica Lewis. “Entries on a Post-Language Poetics in Harryette Mullen’s ‘Dictionary.’” Contemporary Literature, vol. 49, no. 3, Fall 2008, pp. 357–82.
Ngai, Sianne. Ugly Feelings. Harvard UP, 2005.
Nguyen, Hoa. A Thousand Times You Lose Your Treasure. Wave Books, 2021.
Tate, Bronwen. “Reading Affect in Harryette Mullen’s S*PeRM**K*T.” Contemporary Literature, vol. 61, no. 3, Fall 2020, pp. 388-410.
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