Hoa Nguyen’s most recent poetry collection, Violet Energy Ingots (Wave Books, 2016), weaves a rough tapestry of domestic objects and daily tasks that also reveal how we long to grow our own cultural garden. Our flower beds and gardens are so transient; however, the soil we use to plant them is reminiscent of a birth song—or perhaps a death song. The title and what it signifies hinge upon an industrial-sounding term: an “ingot” is a mass of metal that is cast into a convenient shape for storage (like a brick, for example); in this book, Nguyen compacts life’s days into concise blocks of terse light and power—and they are anything but simple.
Trips to the drugstore and the movie theater, scenes along the Mekong River, and experiences of giving academic presentations are combined through the ever-present use of tactile details, which appear throughout the book: pears, mud, growing tomatoes. Full of weight and mastery, her beautifully shaped, free verse poems and sometimes “lists” reveal what is behind the silence, what is not said, what hides under the blank white rectangles.
In her first list poem, “Who was Andrew Jackson?,” Nguyen delivers a brusque portrait. Here are a few lines:
He was the seventh president of the United States…
He was poor but ended up rich…
He was an enslaver of men, women, and children…
He was put on the twenty dollar bill.
This simple list reminds the reader how easy it is to render information about a historical figure into a factual-sounding format, and how textbooks have used this tactic to mask or gloss over abominable behavior by powerful people. The presentation of this poem reminded me of sitting in a classroom and being taught to pretend that some atrocities are normal. Again and again, Nguyen’s poems remind us that the way we provide information to children often leaves them adults who consider it inaccessible or disturbing to hear people question the place of white privilege and power.
Here are lines from the list poem “Pharoah Notes:”
—sported a kilt and
—as a mummy she
is noted as “fat”
These themes are juxtaposed with other powerful considerations about identity. For example, “Pharaoh Notes” describes a powerful woman of color whose literal end-note renders a judgment based upon her looks, not her accomplishments. Nguyen does not need many words or lines to really pack an effective emotional punch.
In these succinct list poems, Nguyen seems to hint at what is not said, as well. She plays with space formatting and line breaks and uses few words at times to convey large meaning. The spaces she puts between words and phrases force us to pay more careful attention, to listen harder, to read more closely. For example, in her poem “Meant to,” the language surrounding a sister is ethereal and specific at the same time. She writes:
Eat red candy hearts
Up from sleeping wet hair
Sister could see her sticking
You leapt Her beauty fell
fall of her Helle was her name
Fall into seas irretrievable…
…Did you turn when
your sister fell?
Nguyen plays with the images of falling and leaping—when we leap, we inevitably fall at some point. The image of a body falling into the sea is dream-like and the spaces in the poem leave us time to fill in our own answers. Even the title “Meant to” asks a question: meant to what? Save a sister? Find her? We are not given an answer. We only have the question to hold as we look into the abyss.
The same sporadic spaces and precise words are used in “For Love Red.” Like the meaning of the word “ingot” itself, it’s almost like the poem lines are mini bricks of details to be stored and take out and admired later. Not only are roses red, but also “red hots.”
So many of these titles augment the meanings offered by the poems; they ask questions or make us ponder the next scene or the one prior to it like a jumpy narrative. Nguyen even leaves blanks for us to fill in our own thoughts: for example, a phrase like “to be” will just hang on the page. This poem feels like an intimate letter using the color red and the feeling of loss, but then it ends with snow. The reader not only feels the loss of the spring and the roses even more, we think of death. Nguyen writes:
For love red
roses were lost
here in the try
and under new weather
Want to say
Grow a mountain of snow…
We can grow roses. We cannot grow snow. We cannot control the weather. Snow falls from the sky, buries us in cold and wet. But the color red shines like a spotlight on snow, heats the white, tries to make a mark. Then it’s gone.
Like the play with word and space, there is also a relationship between domesticity and nature. Nature is cyclical: the flowers and vegetables grow to be picked and consumed, to be killed essentially. Nguyen reinforces this idea of distance and life’s cyclical nature by depicting household items with nature. In the poem “Blousy Guitar,” there is colloquial language: “suckas” is used along with words like “bed hair,” “condiments,” “hot noodles,” and then also: “Your laugh a river,” and “A trout kind of green.” The reader sees an easy day with family and song but still the nature is out the door, reflecting the beauty but also a reminder, life never stops. Nguyen warns:
I wrote “valley” when I meant “longing.”
This seemingly nature poem, “First Flowers,” does not contain one flower. Instead it is about removing wasps from the birdhouse literally making a home safe for a delicate creature. Nguyen questions,
Why does this feel like weeping?
My friends we love
It is two kinds of lost
that I’m lost in.
Again the snow makes an appearance when it is not even winter. She writes, “my boys shook out the dead wasps…” it is spring or summer and cleaning creates a fresh solstice palette to enjoy warm weather and yet the snow is always there, at the back of our minds as is the wasp, who represents aggression and fear.
We feel the passage of time in Nguyen’s work. We see the phases of the moon and hair growing long: romance blossoms and then it’s time to say good bye. The lawn mower cuts the grass. In the poem “She Sails (Spring),” Nguyen even references a circle:
Circles where the syllables used to be
I said I’m at the threshold which sounds
like something I would say
It’s cold It warms It suns It rains
The above spacing is how it appears on the page. The weather is such an indicator of day-to-day life and time passing and yet because we experience being hot or cold every day, we are immune to the sun shining, to the wet rain: it’s a part of our being, of all of our days together on earth.
“Sparrow Again” is also an explicit example of Nguyen’s ability to mesh a foreboding feel of mortality with pop culture references. We think of our own objects and songs that we covet, that we touch every day.
…and the Little Debbie
cream-filled oatmeal cookies
each one wrapped in plastic
The dogwood tree dies 42 years old
hunks of dried rice paper
Shake ‘N Bake chicken…
We cannot wrap the tree in plastic to save its life. But we will eat junk food and talk about plastic and washing machines. The flowers and trees will die all the same, but we still want to grow them, have the chance to pick and trim, and then start all over again.
Jennifer MacBain-Stephens is the author of two full length poetry collections: Your Best Asset Is a White Lace Dress (Yellow Chair Press, 2016) and The Messenger Is Already Dead (forthcoming from Stalking Horse Press, 2017.) Her chapbook Dixit: Every Picture Tells a Story, or The Wrong Items is forthcoming from White Knuckle Press in 2017 and She Came Out From Under the Bed (Poems Inspired by the Films of Guillermo del Toro) is forthcoming from Dancing Girl Press. Recent work can be seen at Lime Hawk, concis, decomp, and Inter/rupture. Visit: http://jennifermacbainstephens.wordpress.com/.