When I die slingshot my ashes onto the surface of the moon by Jennifer Nguyen
Subbed In, 2019
wheeze by Marcus Whale
Subbed In, 2019
Jennifer Nguyen’s debut chapbook, When I die slingshot my ashes onto the surface of the moon, investigates the multifaceted natures of pain and sadness. The opening poem of the collection is called ‘Sometimes, pain is just pain’. An interesting thing to note about this chapbook, and, uniquely, Subbed In’s most recent chapbook series, is that the titles of poems takes up their own pages. Coupled with the twice repetition of ‘pain’, this title is largely unforgettable in the context of the collection.
In the poem, Nguyen’s narrator searches for the answer to the question, ‘Why am I this way?’; that is, why all this pain? The speaker scrapes together some provisional, unsatisfactory answers:
Is it because my parents never once said ‘I love you’. I asked and wasn’t happy with ‘of course’. You asked me if I loved you. I said ‘always’, but you still left anyway.
What does it mean to open a collection with a poem such as this? Most of the poems in the chapbook talk back to the declaration of ‘Sometimes, pain is just pain’; they are filtered through it. One particularly striking dialogue is between the poems ‘Sometimes, pain is just pain’ and ‘Love at first laugh’. ‘Love at first laugh’ is a poem made of three simple lines: ‘On a date with a girl I liked, she said ‘Isn’t The Walking / Dead just Home and Away but with zombies ???’ I have / never fallen in love so fast before’. In the landscape of When I die slingshot my ashes onto the surface of the moon, if, sometimes, pain is just pain, then, crucially, joy is just joy.
Joy, in Nguyen’s writing, is tethered to the quotidian. In ‘Quiet love scenario’, the speaker wakes up in the middle of the night with a leg cramp and the lover ‘half-asleep, massaged / And stretched my leg out’. In ‘Death drives’, the father ‘overheard me say I suffer from / chapped lips and after work the next day presented me / with a tub of Vaseline’. Among poems populated with defeat, these tenderly written, small acts of love are sacred acts of care.
Ocean Vuong, a clear influence in Nguyen’s work, writes in his novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous: ‘Do you remember the happiest day of your life? What about the saddest? Do you ever wonder if sadness and happiness can be combined, to make a deep purple feeling, not good, not bad, but remarkable simply because you didn’t have to live on one side or the other?’i Among the dichotomy of pain and joy, Nguyen boldly orients towards such balance, such ‘purple-ness’, by approaching the quotidian with astonishment.
In Nguyen’s poems throughout the collection, there are depictions of interior complexity. For example, in ‘Time as best friend and worst enemy’, pay attention to the ‘and’, its call to duality: Nguyen’s speaker picks both best friend and worst enemy with the announcement, ‘I trust in time / even when it betrays me’. The metaphors in this poem are sprawling: ‘a second becoming an hour & / not in a cute way like when you’re / kissing someone / but more like / when you find out a dog is almost eighty’. The metaphor contains a small pairing: kissing someone and finding out a dog is eighty. Through these metaphors, Nguyen demonstrates that she is a poet, yes, of wonder, with her upbeat, dreamy syntax—even while she captures the loneliness of transitory joy: ‘I trust in time’. Later in the collection, the poem, ‘The trick is to think you are not an exception, that it happens to everyone, too’, is a lyric catalogue of loneliness. It is the poem that works as the clearest partner to ‘Sometimes, pain is just pain’. It opens with: ‘I’ve been left behind a lot. My high school class / Who picked me last for team sports’. In a previous poem, ‘My misery doesn’t love company’, Nguyen includes a simple image that is provocative in the framework of ‘pain is just pain’. ‘My misery / listens to sad k-pop playlists with nice backgrounds’. It echoes of a section in Taije Silverman’s poem, ‘On Joy’: ‘… with a stranger’s curiosity, she seems to ask / What can I do with your sadness?’. What is there to be done with sadness? How can it be spoken of? How can it be made bearable, to make it pretty against a nice background? If sometimes, pain is just pain then sometimes, pain is just unbearable. In ‘The trick is to think you are not an exception, that it happens to everyone, too’, here is Nguyen’s resounding answer: ‘Things with less permanence were fine too, / Like a pot of jasmine tea. I was thankful even if a bird / Landed near me and stayed for a few curious seconds / Before flitting away’.
If sometimes, joy is just joy, then, sometimes, joy is just welcome.
i Ocean Vuong, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, Penguin Press, New York, 2019, p122.