The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 21-JAN 22

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DEC 21-JAN 22 Issue

“A running leap at the song”

Hoa Nguyen’s A Thousand Times You Lose Your Treasure

Hoa Nguyen
A Thousand Times You Lose Your Treasure
(Wave Books, 2021)

Just past midway in Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning, Cathy Park Hong tells the story of when she first met the poet Hoa Nguyen: “The first question she asked me was, ‘Tell me about your mother.’” The memory of meeting Nguyen shows up in Park Hong’s essay as though the poet suddenly stepped in from the alley shadows of the book’s margins, her imperative to know the author’s mother arriving with abrupt urgency. Park Hong deflects the question, deferring at this juncture for worry that “My mother would take over, breaching the walls of these essays, until it is only her.” Park Hong doesn’t date the meeting, but I imagine it taking place sometime in the span of the twenty-teens, the years when Nguyen was at work on an unfolding literary encounter with her own mother’s history. Through verse biography, documentary and personal archives, and lyric threads that reweave the ruptures of diasporic experience from obscured memory, this work now makes up the poems comprising the stunning A Thousand Times You Lose Your Treasure, published by Wave Books in 2021 and—at the time of my writing this—a finalist for a National Book Award.

Nguyen’s book unearths the history of her mother’s life prior to and throughout the devastations of US intervention and warmongering in Vietnam from 1955 until 1975. In 1968, the then-infant poet and her mother relocated to the United States, where the former motorcyclist began a new life with the name Linda Diep Lijewski. I had first seen some of these poems in a 2015 Free Poetry pamphlet, already bearing the name of the future book, and in a broadside from the same year beautifully printed by Kyle Schlesinger’s Cuneiform Press. The broadside features a black-and-white photograph of Nguyen’s mother, Nguyen Anh Diep, riding trick-style in striking focus at the close end of a long country road in Vietnam. This image opens the new book and accompanies others that capture the all-women troupe of stunt motorcyclists who traveled throughout Vietnam from 1955 to 1961, and which featured the poet’s mother as one of its most daring performers. Their signature act was the Wall of Death, in which riders would spiral up the inner walls of a tower, no-hands with their legs thrown over one side of the bike, collecting money from enthusiastic spectators leaning down from a platform above. Nguyen notes that her mother “would ride to the highest mark on the barrel, the red line,” seemingly defying all gravity.

Treasure is remarkable in the way that Nguyen’s unique poetics of mostly short lines and fragmentary images scattered across the page with rhythmic ease opens into a mosaic of narratives that move between her own life, her mother’s, and mythic realms where the dislodged ghosts of unrealized futures and cultural pasts speak and insist their presence. Hauntings from Vietnamese folklore populate the book and mix with symbols from the poet’s Western upbringing. In “Vietnam Ghost Story: Da Lat Lovers,” Nguyen recounts the tale of two young lovers forbidden from being together by class difference and compelled to tragic ends, scorned even in death when their graves are disturbed and their burial places forcibly separated: “What a terrible / idea // and now his ghost wanders // Actually / both sites are haunted by their ghosts.” Wandering, migratory, and orphaned, the restless spirits of these poems are shades of former selves and uprooted lives that imbue the memories and movements laced throughout the book with bruised color-tones that obscure clear seeing: blue flesh striving toward life and “the running blue shock of her”; “Green lined / several hauntings yellow amber gems”; the ever present áo dài grief-ghost’s purple aura: “what lies ahead / rainbow … the future’s not ours / to see tenderly.”

Severance and perseverance are the contours of the book’s many ellipses, be they the gapped lines of the poems, the poet’s straining to learn the complex inflections of the Vietnamese language, or her efforts to break and unlearn the English she was raised with through the tensions of poetic form. In “Mexico,” Nguyen retells an episode in Diep’s life when she opened a juice stand along the local river after her stunt troupe had stopped touring due to the increasing dangers of the war. It’s one of the longer poems in the book, and is written in starts and stops with a recursive and circuitous backward-looking progression, as though trying to speak in reverse to make sense of lost time:

Refreshments by water
   Vinh Long province
to arrive by boat or foot
   for a fresh drink
to drink by the river made
and served by her or her friend
also formerly of the circus
together they opened a little stand
by the water as a business

The ordinary grammar of the English sentence seems to have no power to tell these stories. Instead, fractured phrases find meaning through the cohesions of rhyme, sonic resonances, and repetition. Playfully, but with subtle menace, the juice stand morphs into a mundane trace or composite of the global military circuits overwhelming the country. Diep’s charm attracted the attention of the soldiers stationed nearby; “Mexico became the most popular / juice spot on the river,” even earning its name from an infatuated captain called Minh, who had recently returned from overseas training in Mexico. At the center of the poem a sudden graphic streak striates the narrative flow like a lapsing or skipping story:


Markings like these trouble the poem’s coherence, seeming to indicate language’s unexpected edges, a limit in the distance that a given poem can go in any one direction, or the way fragile memory under pressure forces a pivot from moment to moment. Reading “Mexico,” nearly lost in the faraway story that the poem tells, the marks are a crosscurrent abrading the surface of the page, interrupting the narrative like a sideways glance to the long riverbank, a sun glare in the eyes distracting us from the poem’s conjuring realism. It’s one of the many stories from which we can’t make full sense, a compression of the precarious power relations that layered those years:

             she became pregnant by Minh
who was married and yet wanted her with him
and when she gave birth to a son
she gave the son to Minh's
wife     and then she was free     and didn't see
      him again

Other graphic incursions return throughout the book, carving the poems with elisions that hold open lapses in the sayable and mark unretrievable loss. In another memory-poem, slashes are hinges that patchwork these remnants, or “( x ),” a fastener to constellate disparate images. In “Mother’s River Moon,” “: \\\\\ ///// :” is the emblem of the “river-parted lovers / of myth” and an untranslatable hieroglyph at the heart of the poem: “a story of brushing hair.”

Orphanhood runs throughout A Thousand Times You Lose Your Treasure in various forms—biographical, phantasmal, cultural, and figural. Nguyen fuses the wide array of voices inhabiting the poems to offer them a sense of rootedness, embodied being and choral harmony at home in the confluent waters of language. Rather than simply reconstruct Diep’s hidden history in Vietnam, Nguyen relives and reimagines it, breathing renewed life into the adventurous youth her mother had deemed her “sole memory,” and transforming that memory into an evolving complex of experience lifted into the present. In the face of official historic record, Nguyen’s poems are defiant refusals: “we be we / transcend history” and “we sing her story beyond time.” Instead, the first-person pronoun, Nguyen’s lyric I, is her vessel for crossing the immense distances of time and geographic remove. In “Naming Assembles You,” early in the collection, she writes, “ah you / not me,” as if discovering that the speaker of her own poems seems to be other than, or in excess of herself. From that moment on, every written I throughout Treasure vibrates multivocally along with she and we, encompassing a conversation between daughter and mother that co-authors the book.

Their merging through the poems realizes a figural return without resolution to the poet’s denied homeland and the events that would impress upon their lives in North America. “[I]f I write flowery and incomplete,” reads one poem, and another: “She / buried the nest us as nest so we could unbury.” Bookending A Thousand Times You Lose Your Treasure is a second photograph from the country road shoot, this time of Diep riding with her face determinedly forward-looking and arms outstretched in flight: “To say you are flying flying fucking flying / on the small French motorbike.” Flight, in all its bravery and double meanings, its sense of survival and extra-human capacity to continue onward, is the spirit that animates the music of this celebratory and elegiac book. Comprising two short but expansive lines, the penultimate poem “We Sing To” reads:

wing a string     we sing to
       wing again


Michael Cavuto

Michael Cavuto is a poet whose first book, Country Poems, was published by Knife Fork Book in 2020. After six years in New York City, he recently moved to Durham, North Carolina. He is an editor for the Slow Poetry in America Newsletter and auric press.


The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 21-JAN 22

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