Given the pandemic’s attack on our attention spans, new poetry collections from Rebecca Salazar, Aaron Tucker, and Hoa Nguyen remind us of the bewilderment, renewal, and delight that poetic language—language at its limits—can provide. We need these books not just to be inspired by what’s possible in contemporary poetry, but also to be reminded of how to live together after isolation and disruption (and in the face of ongoing, tremendous loss).
Vivid and visceral, Rebecca Salazar’s debut collection, sulphurtongue, features four impressive suites that contrast, echo, and scorch. These poems counterpoint desire with terror, and regeneration with violence, in high-stakes lyrics that refuse to merely survive: the body’s “cup of flesh” becomes, instead, a singing bowl (24). This is a melodic and generous collection, one that repeatedly astonishes because of the way Salazar creates unique and oft-disruptive connections between words and across languages. Beginning with a poem titled “Synaesthesia,” in which a pinch “on the neck or the wrist / tastes like landing on your tailbone” (11), Salazar signals an evocative, associative approach to imagery in the lyrics to come. What’s especially exciting, however, is how, as the book progresses, these synesthetics are mobilized to turn the pleasure of poetic thinking into protest, critique, and retort. Part 3, “dopplebanger,” is a standout, each poem comprising flexing, rhythmic couplets. Here is “Underbelly” in its entirety:
When blood is cut with acid rain,
all touch pollutes. Lips to brow.
Oversaturated silt will oxidize its waters
and leave ore deposits blinking up, glaucomatous.
Pour my molten afterbirth down the black hills.
Watch the drip trails reach out: burning, liquefied limbs.
I am mourning my pubescent faith
that all things come to flower.
Months ago, I shed my ilia on your front porch.
Return my bones before raccoons scavenge my sex. (65)
There are sorrows, here, but also demands: Salazar’s poems implicate the reader, pull us into complex, panging meshworks of complicity. When the collection arrives at its final part, “sulphur bonds,” those complicities become more explicitly focused on deteriorating environments and the perpetual colonial violence of “the land’s (white) history” (95). Whorled in a cycle of resource extraction as sustenance, the speaker calls us to prayer at book’s end while, simultaneously, unsettling the way we take refreshment: “Pray with me: recite the names of lakes / from which our tap water is drawn” (111).
Aaron Tucker’s Catalogue d’oiseaux is a palimpsest of love and longing. Across this book-length poem that comprises vignettes of time spent either with his partner or yearning for their reconnection, Tucker’s speaker navigates gallery exhibits, bustling cityscapes, and domestic spaces with dream-like pleasure and desire. Via propulsive, compound words that strangeify—to borrow Matthew Zapruder’s word—a world of delights and fascinations (take, for instance, the words “neondraped,” “windcurrents,” and “nesthome”), the partnership portrayed is predicated on unwavering belief in the existential value of art, the transformative potential of earnest conversation, and the life-enriching practice of writing and reading literature. The beloved sought has been found, and the relationship that she and the speaker choose to cultivate—across oceans, time zones, continents—is cerebral but also ardently aesthetic. The resulting poem is saturated with unabashed, idealistic adoration, which, at first, feels a little overwhelming: it wasn’t until about halfway through my initial reading that it dawned on me that the way Tucker savours—in the face of unrelenting disparity, doom, and evil—his amazement at having found his ideal partner is radical and inspiring. This is a poem about a great love, and the stylized memories that Tucker catalogues expand what’s possible when it comes to describing romance in the Anthropocene. “Braided together” (20), the lovers’ commitment takes precedent regardless of whether they’re traversing cityscapes together:
we, a city’s occupants
are messy strata, Toronto, Porto, Frankfurt, Vancouver
& so on up Yonge Street as shreds of pigment
as ink & frail gestures, we move without immediate destination
hand-in-hand mid-afternoon light
on your dark hair, in your astral eyes. (23)
Or whether they’re apart, synchronizing their lives via text:
you, novae, lodestar, despite the absence
an acute ubiquitous missing of our other half, lunula
we will fill with WhatsApp messages, phone calls
watching Netflix across a six-hour time difference
commenting on the other’s social media
our digital bodies substituting for the corporeal,
bearing voice & tones
the shimmering vision of meeting again
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
we live inside memories that form around us. (24-25)
Throughout, the curated scenes are—to use the beloved’s characterization of the artist Jeff Wall’s works—“both staged event & impossible recreation” (38). But I suspect this is the book that many would write were they fortunate enough to feel such certainty in love. Theatre d’Oiseaux rejects cynicism and sarcasm, and Tucker’s optimism is the first contagion I’ve considered welcoming in years.
In A Thousand Times You Lose Your Treasure, Hoa Nguyen’s definition of the word “precipitation, n.” aptly describes the experience of reading the book: “act or fact of falling headlong” (51). These poems travel like raindrops descending glass: Nguyen’s deft, marvellous lines slip down and coalesce on the page, through fragments from her mother’s life (which includes a stint as a member of an all-women stunt motorcycle troupe), incisive descriptions of the American weapons that devastated the Vietnamese jungle and countryside during the Vietnam War, and scenes (and scenarios) that highlight the challenges of communication across languages. Even though, as one speaker reminds us, “the past tense of sing is not singed” (20), these poems do singe as they sing, since the inheritance that they reckon with—one of resilience, courage, stubbornness—takes the form of melodic, lithe snippets that thrill and disturb. The poems evade even as they intimate, travelling between history and the present, memories and figments, competing narratives and entangled voices. In line with how Nguyen’s mother “held hands on the Wall of Death” (51)—photographs in the back of the book present a circular wooden bowl, of sorts, in which she would ride a motorcycle so high up the sides that her body would swoop parallel to the ground—these poems depend on inertia, too, as they suck language in close. Take, for instance, the whirling sensation created by “Failed Tower Ca Dao”:
sonnet tied to the sky
struck by lightning
in that one film version
of Frankenstein who
was it that feared
the storm and lightning
myth and history twist
exile into a tower structure
also called “mouth”
that feeling of headlong
the site of mother
my longing in language
see my eyes rubies red I feed
on toxic flowers kiss one
or any flower rise clean from
mud water row a petal boat
absurd longing to sing the sun
to exist and live an island of (83)
There is coherence, here, but not linearity. Phrases coexist and resonate together—mid-line, between stanzas, and inside other poems pages apart. The resulting collection interplays, not unlike motorcycle stunting, moments of precarity, danger, exhilaration, and freedom. Those hungering for that delightful admixture of perplexity and excitement that a truly singular poetic voice can provide will welcome Hoa Nguyen’s latest work.
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