Carmine Frascarelli Reviews Nguyễn Tiên Hoàng

5 July 2018

This is Captive and Temporal at its best. It’s a finely balanced, though at times defiantly esoteric work. The poems don’t stack like separate songs but as organs of a holistic body that emanates altered paths with each reading, I like this, though there will be many readers who will come to find it repetitive and a little cloying after a while. It also means that some poems, such as ‘EVIDENCE’ and ‘TANKS’ can feel a little out of place. They lack the inimitably raw sophistication of the majority of the poems, and knot the concepts and themes rather than innervating them. Lines like ‘Now Found Guilty / [stamped, by the highest Authority in the region]’ (‘EVIDENCE’), while relating to later poems about Communist China, slump as Kafka-kitsch. Likewise, many weak similes – ‘pale like a malaria-suffering outpatient’ (‘HANOI, MARCH 1995 PRELUDE’); ‘old like an oak’ (‘BY ACCIDENT’); ‘like reeds in their continuing, confused state’ (NORTH’) – seem unnecessary, particularly as Nguyễn’s work also functions as a vivisection of language. A bilingual poet who’s renowned for his translations of poetry between English and Vietnamese, Nguyễn chooses not to sign the original language of the poems. There are some unexpected turns of syntax, mimesis and poetic performatives that force us to re-evaluate relationships of agency and interpretation. For example, ‘BEYOND’ finishes with ‘O white wind, whither does it blow?’ Is he serious? Sort of. In the context of the poem, it’s a wordplay with the earlier ‘wither’, but it also mocks the enshrinement of such archaic poesy as a pillar of Anglo-centric culture. Add a few other choice European phrases and words and he’s trying on the cloak of the culture’s poetic affectation. Sometimes this seems affectionate. Sometimes he seems to be wresting off the cloak with Fogarty-like lines: ‘time moral bankrupt’ (‘BY ACCIDENT’); ‘whoever lying down in such soil ought to ask for’ (‘YELLOW FINCH, ASH WEDNESDAY’). While Nguyễn is not as dynamic as Fogarty, this sharpness and contrast in use of syntax and diction is similarly clever in that it means Nguyễn is resisting easy categorisation or appeasement as a quaint ‘ethnic/other’ poet or as a ‘fuck whitey’ one. In ‘THE FIFTH MOON’, Nguyễn clinically translates the word ‘tà’ with a formal definition in a footnote. In ‘HANOI, MARCH 1995 PRELUDE’ he offers more conversational but still in parentheses:

thược dược, cúc hoa, kẹo vừng, bánh cốm
(to your company, a literal translation: dahlias, chrysanthemum, ginger
        sweets, young rice sweets – well, something like that.)

Nguyễn almost disarmingly admits there are private sensations held within language that can’t be communicated. He doesn’t quite care whether the non-Vietnamese reader gets it, because it’s almost as if he can smell and taste the referents as they leave his (native) tongue; experiences echoing through memory for which there are no words. I know that my institutional schooling in English contrasted with the broken English of my grandparents (from Southern and Eastern Europe). The public realm purported it as a civilised means of social perfectibility. The private one was slightly fraught, a rupture of the lineal relationship to roots and inherited identity. Where the heart is, so to speak, an eye appears at each end of the telescope.

Nguyễn continues the examination of linguistics, wondering where material communication and meaning meet.

One is allowed to be wrong, don’t know what it means,
What’s there waiting, who, how, the next turns:

Is intention in a state of expiry or dilution by the time it enters words?

One is allowed to be wrong and quaint, queer.

‘Queer’ lingers. It’s one of those points. Nguyễn’s showing us how meaning itself migrates from and into words just as words can find themselves in other delineations of context. It is as if our urge to hold things to through a specific language might not really matter all that much.

Thematically, I feel a gap in the collection. It’s only really in cinema and books that Nguyễn dissects materialist history. Techno-culture and such modes of mediation are barely present in this collection, which I found strange considering the poet’s biography also states he worked in Information Technology. The gritty, authentic reading of the work takes a slight turn as its performance of confrontation is encased largely in the sentimental remembrances of other times: May ’68; the ‘Second Golden Age’ of 70s Hollywood’; Vietnamese writers and artists; and University libraries. These inventories of intellectual brand names are references that surface regularly and this prematurely yellows the poetry’s edges. I would have loved Nguyễn, who obviously has a nuanced intelligence, to show us how in particular techno-capitalism / globalism relates, affects, distorts, influences and alters the rest of the concepts in this book. It’s a disappointing absence from an otherwise vital discourse.

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