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Poetry Review: As Long as Trees Last by Hoa Nguyen

September 13, 2012

From “Feather:”

We can laugh like a whip crack
on tune

to replenish me

::::  trees be the church

Me, I’m an animal with a fixed number of limbs that will only move me in one direction at a time. Trees, they don’t have that problem, with all their branchings, pushing themselves out in an exponentially growing number of directions.

Here are some things I learned about trees in grade school: Eventually, the branching terminates in leaves. The leaves absorb light which is converted into chemical energy. This storage of energy is at the center of its metabolic process, allowing the tree to choose when and how it will be released to drive the synthesis and movement of other chemicals. Meanwhile, the water necessary for this conversion is carried up from the ground through a ubiquitous internal vascular system. However, much of that water remains unused and is released through pores into the atmosphere, contributing to the production of clouds.

From “Hexagram #1 Poem:”

Great first head

The thinking stars?

 Light vibrating molecule
       (truth seed)

The outside is the inside  the wall is a door

If this were a riddle, I’d say “the outside is the inside” is referring to language: Language is one’s interiority made physically manifest while also, in relation to the physical world we perceive, carving out our internal consciousness. The inside is the outside. But this isn’t a riddle. Riddles move the mind in a single direction – they have a definite answer. A poem branches out, a ship with multiple bearings at once. I still want to say what I said about language, but with the acknowledgement that it doesn’t solve the poem; it merely scurries along one of its branches.

From “So Obvious:”

 So obvious  feathers on a heart pen
or beneath violet insides  Open
center when your heart is a
small baby born

Horn cup held inside and you wear
a gown with dark torn
a dark train
and starry yellow
flags for me maybe also
summer cicadas

“Heart,” “horn” and “held” all begin with an aspiration (the h sound); “born,” “horn” and “torn” all end with the orn sound. And visually, “feathers,” “beneath,” “heart” and “wear” all share the letters ea (though pronounced differently in each case). This volume just opens the door to the coincidences of English, and so uses the energy of chance to convert music into sugar… not meaning, but a stored potential for meaning and intention. Something prior to and necessary for meaning and intention; something that I can carry around with me that will drive the synthesis and movement of my interactions with the world. Kinetic energy becomes potential energy; heat is kept in cups and bowls to be spilled at the heart’s discretion. From “Absence and a Cushion:”

                 Heated heart
Carolina Wren
you hear stabbing gold

Is tea to drink  why reach to steep
if why is the brown cloth
of me pulled taut to reach you there

Out of hearts  Heat
Stab a day
dear Heart
that stays and spills

We keep us vowed  Cup of keep
pink there and brown  a heard hurt

Out of that we spill

Tea of you are days

Away I am
out there
sucking at leaves

I love how that last stanza plays on the ambiguity of leaves – the noun referring to foliage, and the verb referring to departure.

In contrast, often a word will be used, and then quickly repeated in a very different context, as with the word “outside” in the poem “Letting It In.”

Orbs circle  light outside
and dance squibs

Hatch in your hat
outside of time and I sit
on my flower

It feels very fine
being a girl

Notice, this isn’t the exploitation of homonyms/ambiguity (you wouldn’t need different dictionary entries for the two uses of the word “outside”), but a probing of its possibilities, at its center (a literal use of the word – “light outside”) and then at its border (the figurative “outside of time”). The leaves of a tree don’t have to be different in kind; difference in position and orientation allow them to accept different streams of the sun’s generosity.

Other times, a word will be used and then almost immediately repeated, where the only change is that a different aspect of the same situation is being described, as with the word “frog” in “Unused Baby:”

 You have your apparatus
being the Frog Husband and I burn
your frog skin to keep you
in the shape I prefer

Not just the word is being repeated, but also the information is being repeated. We could infer that the husband would have frog skin, since we were already told he is a “frog Husband.” We get this again, and more obviously, with the word “place” later in the same poem:

 Wasp friend landed on my
shoulder sparkle to say   This place
we are in       is a place

The word is double clicked to re-center the scene on that word’s significance: This place we are in is a place – we are being told that what matters isn’t the particular features of the narrator’s extension in space, but that she has a particular extension in space. Rather than augment facts, tautology is used to tighten the readers connection to a given fact. The tree needs a trunk, needs a center, needs to be held to the earth.

The concepts of inside and outside are explored quite a bit. And cups and bowls keep appearing, which are notable for having insides that aren’t in anyway closed off from an outside; they are readily filled and emptied, filled and emptied. I’m made to feel by these poems that interior and exterior are not defined by their separation, but by their relation, their communication. I’m reminded of this poem by Emily Dickinson:

My Cocoon tightens — Colors tease —
I'm feeling for the Air —
A dim capacity for Wings
Demeans the Dress I wear —

A power of Butterfly must be —
The Aptitude to fly
Meadows of Majesty implies
And easy Sweeps of Sky —

So I must baffle at the Hint
And cipher at the Sign
And make much blunder, if at last
I take the clue divine —

Emily Dickinson is definitely my favorite American poet, and Hoa Nguyen’s work seems to learn a lot from Dickinson, in a way that I haven’t seen in other contemporary writers. This is exciting for me.

Hoa Nguyen has authored several previous books and chapbooks, including Your Ancient See Through and Hecate Lochia. As Long as Trees Last is published by the consistently brilliant Wave Books. Trees!

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