REVIEW: Souvankham Thammavongsa’s Light

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by Michael Wasson

Can it look so effortless to locate us in a bright opening as Souvankham Thammavongsa’s book Light? Her collection begins, “This is a clearing,” a spatial entrance so cleared of everything but one caveat, or “one rule,” that you “will bind to yourself like a promise / to begin.” In a way, we’re guided along and given a clear outline.

At the outset, the speaker brings us in, demonstrating how to start. With such a deft and soft hand, Thammavongsa doesn’t so much as urge as she lets us become receptacles to the possibilities of what’s before us: light, shapes, direction, and the very marked contours that remain here.

Reading Thammavongsa’s Light, we can’t help but feel opened, but not so much in a vulnerable way—as in grief or bearing fresh wounds—but merely as passive bodies left open at the lips pressed between the dark and light, the point at which a singular transformation enters us so easily. And to be transformed openly is a common concern for these poems:

fie mot is what happens when you’re not expecting it

This poem “Fie,” one of many that examines how another language says light or some sort of light source, shows us how to say fire in Lao. Going through the foundation word of fire, or fie, provides us then with how to say words for flashlight, fire when it burns through structures, or the sound of thunder. In Thammavongsa’s gentle surgery and guidance through several languages, we are in the audience role as a vessel—simply driven in place to receive, not expecting complex issues or dense manifestos.

Thammavongsa’s poetry is one leaning on the grace of simplicity, never overtly didactic, never verbose or meandering. Each poem explores our central theme: light. To be lit, to experience its absence, to need it, to part with it, to experience how slowly devoured we are by its presence, and in a way, almost speak for it.

Also, in the same vein, Thammavongsa illuminates the “marks”—I’d clarify as the “letters”—of her poems, allowing the whitespace to create clearer utterances within her poems. Her lines seem airy, almost floating. They are wrought with her initial declaration of “This is a clearing,” which we can then realign as “these are clearings,” creating a link from the book as a whole all the way down to the light pooling between her syntax. It’s a lovely, threaded effect.

Like light, Thammavongsa’s Light touches on so many aspects on a human’s life, too—failure, preparing for a return, text on the page, ceremonializing awe, love, and the beauty of continuation, as in the poem “Mountain Ash,” in which we know “Ash is what fire leaves behind” but we are challenged to consider that there is more: “Whatever we know of fire, we know it is not done.”

The most salient poem of the book, I find, is “Questions Sent to a Light Artist That Were Never Answered,” an unforgettable piece that equally critiques and advocates our obsessions:

  1. When you think about the word light, what comes to mind first?
  1. Do you work with real light (light from the sun) or only with electrical light?
  1. What are you trying to do with light?
  1. Do you think or work with the dark?
  1. What can’t you get light to do?
  1. Why light?

This book straightforwardly articulates its singular concern, thereby letting its source to permeate from the speaker’s vantage point. Again, we remain open, we are accepting, and ultimately we are changed in the process.

And in all its observations from a giant squid’s eye (that could absorb so much light but why so when it lived “where there was no light at all”) to the refracted, anaphoric effect of constant memories of one’s life surfacing, Light is a rich, enlightening experience that honors human curiosity. It’s a journey that I’m delighted to have embarked on with such a clear-eyed guide as Souvankham Thammavongsa.

Light is available from Pedlar Press

Michael Wasson, nimíipuu from the Nez Perce Reservation in Idaho, earned his MFA from Oregon State University and his BA from Lewis-Clark State College. He received a Joyce Carol Oates Award in Poetry, and his work is included or forthcoming in Poetry Kanto, As/Us, Hayden’s Ferry Review, American Indian Culture and Research Journal, Cutthroat, and elsewhere.

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