by Allison Noelle Conner
The poems in Hoa Nguyen’s latest collection concern themselves with the domestic and/or quotidian. There are scenes of cooking, dreaming, note-taking, remembering, season-changing, crying, tree-cutting, and bird watching. At times it feels as if you are reading fragments from a diary, one seemingly focused on expressing the everyday through language. However, the “everydayness” of the content is countered constantly by Nguyen’s use of gaps, silences, evasion, and reassemblage.
Her work brings to mind two quotes from “Commitment from the Mirror-Writing Box”, an essay by Trinh T. Minh-ha from her book Woman, Native, Other: Writing Postcoloniality and Feminism. In the first, Minh-ha describes an alternative type of writer, one who does not express themselves in sentences but rather “thinks sentences: she is a sentence-thinker…[one] who radically questions the world through the questioning of a how-to-write.”(17) In the second, Minh-ha stresses the importance of writing as becoming: “To write is to become. Not to become a writer (or a poet), but to become, intransitively. Not when writing adopts established keynotes or policy, but when it traces for itself lines of evasion…A sentence-thinker, yes, but one who so very often does not know how a sentence will end, I say. And as there is no need to rush, just leave it open, so that it may later on find, or not find, its closure. Words, fragments, and lines that I love for no sound reason; blanks, lapses, and silences that settle in like gaps of fresh air as soon as the inked space smells stuffy.”(18)
What shapes do Tells of the Crackling trace? The image of the slash( / ) recurs throughout the book. It is found on the cover, on the title page, in the bottom right corner of the pages facing right, and on the penultimate page. The sign recalls a blade, a slice, carving, the aftermaths of some cutting motion.
She is her but I don’t rem
the ashes I obsess She said
Remember cracks, is swallowed by action rather than expressing an action. You feel the pulse of the speaker’s empathetic thinking: the words do not merely relay, they enact the disjointedness of failing to remember that which you apparently know. For Nguyen, language is not static or unchanging or inherent. It can easily be fragmented to reveal hidden meanings, alternative possibilities, and unknown sentiments. It can exist as a song that resists the rational, the ordered, the logical, the dominant. It can become “punctuated shredded parts” coursing together to form the unimaginable, the absent, what on the surface seems to be impossible. In “Locust Tree Notes (East Toronto)”, the speaker mentions how this specific species is “[u]sed to reclaim damaged land”:
They reestablish “disturbed sites”
with nitrogen roots
(my notes say soul)
Nguyen seems to be searching for ways in which poetry, language, and gestures can(and, conversely, fail to) restore and/or regenerate comprised geographies; whether those be ancestral, psychological, emotional, spiritual, linguistic, material, political, or metaphorical. Throughout Nguyen presents us with moments where disturbed sites rupture and erupt into the domestic present. What if the sharp, short noises previously discarded as nonsense or ruined rose to sing an untraceable tune? How should one capture the texture of its tellings?
In “To Seek”, the speaker announces her frustration with the utilitarian function of expression:
I want the root of the words
not the fucking use
made purposed and stupid
Many any foot feet be
May my root feet be
The shifting wordplay illustrates the unstableness of language and meaning. On the surface, “the root of the word” can refer to the word stripped of its prefixes and suffixes. But root also connotes lineage, history, and pasts; or that which disturbed sites wish to remember and reclaim. “Stars” approaches this subject of parental inheritance and reconnection. But rather than explicitly state “This is a poem about familial legacy, about a speaker reckoning with their ancestors”, Nguyen stitches words together to create a multiplicity of meaning. The stream of consciousness tone reiterates this feeling of linguistic spontaneity, interrogation, and ambiguity.
Stars your parents join
join your parents of the stars
under an oxygen tent
The blank between “Stars” and “your” could be a breath, a hesitation, something missing, contemplation, preparation, a space for creation. As the poem proceeds the language starts to turn in on itself. The speaker views memory as something “to sever”, “to sit in”, to “serve you”, “a rock fortress”:
more father than father in years
After cold spring
I mean spring o uncle
What have you here bring spring
The exact uses of the words are less important than the knot of associations the words bring forth. The father is far, farther, as distant as traveling light. The realization turns spring to psring, a reordering that illustrates the speaker’s difficulty in thinking clearly about traumatic pasts. Nonetheless, roots in the form of “bright spring” continue to sprout despite the cutting, the erasure, the destroying. Tells of the Crackling wonders: What language will or can grow from the disrupted? Nguyen offers no definitive answers. As readers we are given openings, channels, and points of departures. Perhaps what matters most is our willingness to return, as the last lines of “After The Song” suggest:
tremble and I sign
my name It’s my
hand on the page
climb back up again
a chorus of screams
Sing Sing the chorus again
Buy it from Ugly Duckling Press: $9.00.
Allison Noelle Conner is writer based in Los Angeles. She is an assistant fiction editor for The Offing. Currently, she is at work on her first book, a prose project exploring institutionalization, possessions, and black women geographies.