A Thousand Times You Lose Your Treasure
(Wave Books, 2021)
At the beginning of 2021, nearly one out of every 100 people around the world have been forcibly displaced from their homes. Whether a refugee crossing a national border or internally uprooted within a particular country, more than 80 million people are fleeing the experience or threat of violence. These numbers from the United Nations Refugee Agency do not include the increasing number of people compelled to relocate because of devastating weather events related to climate change. Rather, these refugees have been produced by the combination of international hostilities, dysfunctional governments, and localized conflict (which are frequently concurring, as in Syria). In one of the largest migrations in recent history, nearly two million Vietnamese fled the country during the 20 years following the end of the Vietnam War in 1975 (to compare a current catastrophe: six million people have fled Syria during the civil war). Most traveled by small boats to nearby countries, and thus were named the “Vietnamese boat people.” Exact numbers are impossible to ascertain, but the Vietnamese Boat People podcast estimates that between 200,000 and 600,000 people died during this migration.
One of the many anti-colonial liberation struggles that swept the globe in the mid-20th century, the wars in Vietnam—first against the French, then the United States—saw more than two million Vietnamese killed. From 1965 to 1975, the United States dropped twice as many bombs on Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos than fell on all of Europe and Asia during the Second World War; it also extensively used highly flammable napalm and the defoliant Agent Orange, the latter of which was sprayed on nearly a quarter of South Vietnam and has caused birth defects in half a million Vietnamese children, an affliction that continues into the present. Weaponized during World War II by the United States to create firestorms in Japanese cities constructed primarily with wood, napalm is most famously associated with Vietnam, as well as with two of its most iconic media moments: Nick Ut’s 1972 photograph of the nine-year-old Phan Thị Kim Phúc running naked while fleeing a napalm attack and Robert Duvall as Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore in the movie Apocalypse Now (1979) shirtless and intoning, “I love the smell of napalm in the morning.”
Napalm is among the handful of references to the Vietnam War in Hoa Nguyen’s newest book of poems, A Thousand Times You Lose Your Treasure (Wave Books, 2021). According to one of the collection’s more explicitly documentary poems, this “efficient incendiary formula” was “perfected on Valentine’s Day / 1942.” Nguyen left Vietnam at the age of two with her mother and the latter’s American partner in 1968 after the Tet Offensive (what the North Vietnamese call the General Offensive and General Uprising)—the surprise and overwhelming military attack on the South by the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong that revealed to people in the United States that imminent victory in the war was being presented to them as a lie. In fact, from its beginning to its end, the Vietnam War was conducted by the United States with massive subterfuge, including the arming of the indigenous Hmong in Laos, helping plan the coup against South Vietnamese President Ngô Đình Diệm, the Gulf of Tonkin incident, and the secret bombing of Cambodia and Laos, to name only a few. All of history is a lie, except that all of history is the truth in that the lies have consequences as much as what actually happened.
In any case, Nguyen is not interested in revisiting the various histories of the Vietnam War: “and no I don’t want to conduct / Mỹ Lai research and produce it / for you here / Dear Reader.” Instead she narrates her own and, more specifically, her mother’s life. In doing so, Nguyen carves out a personal history between Vietnam and the United States, one that partly dislocates her mother and herself from both. (Still crossing borders, Nguyen was raised in the United States but has spent the past decade living in Toronto; in 2017 she was nominated for the Griffin Poetry Prize, Canada’s most prestigious poetry award.) A Thousand Times You Lose Your Treasure concludes with a series of black-and-white photographs of Nguyen’s mother, born Nguyễn Anh Diệp, who at 15 left her rural village and eventually joined an all-female stunt motorcycle team that traveled throughout Vietnam to perform, including for President Diệm a few years before his overthrow and assassination. This sense of freedom, mobility, female solidarity, and riding with hands removed from the handlebars (as displayed in nearly all of the chosen photographs of Diệp on her motorcycle) are the organizing metaphors for Nguyen’s book.
In the United States, Diệp took the name Linda Diep Lijewski and worked as a waitress in Maryland. (She died in 2019, although Nguyen had been thinking about the project for at least a decade prior.) That this information is not internal to the poems—it is available in notes at the back and in interviews with Nguyen—is an aspect of how the poems function via the reconstruction of shards of memory, experience, history, perception, and lore. There is no larger aerial view, not even of the self; rather, everyday life—which has always been the focus of Nguyen’s poetry—is a series of distractions, recollections, fleeting awareness, moments of company and solitude, mundane tasks (cooking, shopping, child-rearing), and occasional magic. Nguyen usually writes short poems in an immediate, fragmentary, lyric mode, but what partly differentiates A Thousand Times You Lose Your Treasure is that these are haunted by ghosts, phantoms, and spirits. In certain ways the book is a hybrid work in its incorporation of documentary prose blocks; two letters from her mother’s aunt asking for money; a newspaper clipping from June 19, 1967; and translated phrases from Vietnamese using Colloquial Vietnamese: A Complete Language Course (1994).
Nguyen’s mother appeared fleetingly in earlier books, her father even less; when they both surfaced, it was oftentimes with dreamlike imagery: “My father’s house on huge pile stilts / as if the ground had shrunken up” (from Your Ancient See Through ). Memory in A Thousand Times You Lose Your Treasure roams equally across people, landscape, and language. In the poem’s longest and most directly biographical poem, “Mexico,” Nguyen assembles a short narrative of her mother’s life after her time in the motorcycle troupe; she does so from snippets of recalled conversations and her mother’s hesitant recollections, a combination of willfully and unintentionally forgotten memories. Naming is crucial to this process of shaping both the past and the present. At one point in the poem when Nguyen’s mother is having trouble recalling the ingredients in the juices she made at her fruit-stand business venture, she says: “you name it.” In fact, her fruit stand was named Mexico at the suggestion of a young Vietnamese military officer who had done some of his training in that country and was courting Diệp. The poem ends with her conceiving a male child with him and giving it to the man’s wife in order to be free of the whole situation.
The title of the poem “Naming Assembles You” might, then, serve as a motif for Nguyen’s work just as her mother’s name change and refusal to speak Vietnamese once she settled in the United States was a way of refashioning her own history and identity. Much of Nguyen’s poetry has involved naming as the process by which she creates and re-creates the reality surrounding her, and the weight of her work frequently falls on its nouns. Her writing’s concision, its general lack of narrative, its refusal of standard forms, its gaps and pauses are all ways of interrupting the flow of experience and, more importantly, the conventions and directives—the normative ideologies—embedded within this flow:
Look at the map upside down so that south
is north and north is south
it’s the other
way around because it’s the commonly agreed to
thing (visual language of the colonizer) or
snowful awful tearful wishful
As the visual (and rhythmic) rupture in the first line indicates, language is the most fundamental map that an encounter with otherness upsets. The result both decenters and recenters, as the third line proposes by isolating “other,” which also occurs to “thing” two lines later. Both of these fundamental nouns have been uprooted from their surrounding syntax’s attempt to absorb them, creating a pause in which to reconsider what is “commonly agreed to” because this consensus is oftentimes the disguise for ideology’s colonizing effect. “Snowful” gives a touch of the inexpressible or perhaps the untranslatable to what is awful and tragic (the phrasing here faintly echoes Paul Celan), while every “wishful” carries a disappointment within it, every joy a sorrow, every satisfaction an eventual emptying. The losses sometimes feel insurmountable.
Yet just as her mother’s symbol of freedom—her French motorcycle—is both a reminder and remainder of former and ongoing colonial legacies, history and ethnicity (and class) stick to the poems in A Thousand Times You Lose Your Treasure. Nguyen speaks of her mother’s “… love of colonial electric lights / motorbikes cursed roses Xmas.” Nevertheless, not only the motorcycle, but the unconventional uses to which Diệp puts it, signify her liberation. Poetry, too, has this potential to be fugitive. Riding a motorcycle is one thing; how one rides it is another, as the old photographs and Nguyen’s poems make clear. They do so by taking what is given and seeking to strip away cliché and standard usages, which is a question of both form and content. As Dorothy Wang argues in Thinking Its Presence: Form, Race, and Subjectivity in Contemporary Asian American Poetry:
While the precise nature of the link between the world and a poetic text can never be fully explicated, what is clear is that the path to understanding that relation can come only through close readings of particular poems themselves—and an understanding of the poet’s and text’s place, both temporal and spatial, in historical context. Whether reading the poems of Li-Young Lee or Gerald Stern, Mei-mei Berssenbrugge or Leslie Scalapino, one must pay careful attention to the nuances and specificities of the poet’s particular use of language and the sociopolitical environment, whose particular residues (some different, some shared) have suffused each poet’s subjectivity and influenced the production and reception of poems.
Despite her mother’s attempts at partial assimilation into US society, one gets the sense from Nguyen’s book that she also resisted this: “you & me haughty and hungry.” Moreover, as the recent dramatic increase in violence against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the United States continues to reveal, it is difficult to be integrated into a society structured to maintain white homogeneity and dominance.
Edward Said writes in Culture and Imperialism: “Never was it the case that the imperial encounter pitted an active Western intruder against a supine or inert non-Western native; there was always some form of active resistance, and in the overwhelming majority of cases, the resistance finally won out” (emphasis in original). In the end, the French and United States lost their wars in Vietnam (and the United States its more recent one in Afghanistan), as did all the imperial powers in their attempts to maintain rule over their former colonies. History may frequently be written by the victors, but the global ubiquity of the US media, including films such as Apocalypse Now, means that the United States has been able to shape the Vietnam War’s narrative at home and abroad. In a film like that, Diệp would at best have been an extra, at worst a victim. Nguyen makes clear that her mother was never either, although according to the one-line poem “Hagiography”: “A saint she ain’t.” Nguyen’s fragmentary counter-narrative both addresses and eludes recent histories of Vietnam, which like all wars doesn’t end when it stops.
Nguyen never does elucidate the meaning of the phrase A Thousand Times You Lose Your Treasure (again, it is not her role to explain—or translate), and no amount of Googling seems to clarify. It may refer to the many losses her mother endured, or that she and her mother endured together, or it may refer to Nguyen’s loss of her mother, or it may be all the losses to memory and history that this book tries to reconstruct while acknowledging the accompanying obstacles. It may be a title about impossibility and hauntology. Yet the sense of repetition implies trying again, even if “This isn’t doing anything like redemption.” It is like life in that way, and Nguyen’s poetry—in its form and content—has always sought to close just a little bit the gap between art and life. Not poetry “about” life, but of a life. A life lost but regained—and renamed—in its writing.