Home and away: the dislocations of place and self in Hoa Nguyen’s A Thousand Times You Lose Your Treasure

The word “mother” invokes the central dislocations in Toronto poet Hoa Nguyen’s fourth full-length collection. First, and most obviously, it refers to the poet’s own mother, a former stunt motorcyclist in her home country of Vietnam. More elliptically, but no less significantly, it is the root of “motherland,” and in her excavation of the many bifurcations that result from the experience of colonial warfare and immigration, Nguyen engages a nuanced examination of connections – maintained, severed, or remembered – to home. (Home, in this case, being both a country and a mother’s womb.)

These bifurcations are profound in something as essential as a person’s name. Nguyen’s mother, we are informed in a note at the end of the book, was born Nguyễn Anh Diệp, but changed her name to Linda Diep Lijewski when she fled Vietnam for the U.S. in 1968. Even her Vietnamese name was not her birth name, according to the poem “Diệp Before Completion”: as a sickly baby, she was renamed after a “strapping / Chinese butcher,” her original given name (which goes unstated) having been “deemed too delicate.” Grown up, the mother declares Diệp “an ugly sounding name” and recasts herself in part as a way of giving her a new identity and a fresh start in her adopted country.

But the pull of home – of the motherland – refuses to release itself quite so readily. “Viewed from 2020” begins, “mother wept for not / seeing ‘home’ again and then didn’t.” The second line, unpunctuated in the poem, ends on a note of ambiguity: she didn’t continue weeping, or didn’t ever see her home again? (The poem is dated the year after Nguyen’s mother died.) And the quotes around “home” call into question the precise status of the place referred to – does one’s place of birth constitute a home if it is summarily abandoned? Were she to return to Vietnam, Nguyen’s mother would be returning to a country transformed by the brutality of two colonial wars, first against the French, then the Americans. And the shift from an Eastern context to life in the West comes with its own impulse toward erasure: “Viewed from 2000” ends with the speaker bragging, “look ma / no accent.”

“[W]e are poor people / transplants / halfway round the planet” says the speaker in “Transplants.” And though the speaker goes on to insist, “I don’t want to conduct / Mỹ Lai research and produce it / for you here,” the ravages of the U.S.-led conflict that forced Diệp to abandon her country of birth underpin the entire volume. This is most apparent in documentary poems such as “Notes on Operation Hades,” about the U.S.’s use of so-called rainbow herbicides, including the devastating Agent Orange, as weapons of war against the North Vietnamese. “Napalm Notes” describes the “efficient incendiary formula” developed “in secret / at Harvard” and deployed at a rate of “8 million tons of bombs” burning at “1,500–2,000ºF (1/5th as hot / as the surface of the sun).”

“Napalm Notes” resurfaces in a later poem, in which the speaker (assumed to be Nguyen herself) reads a “napalm poem” to a live audience; the poem contains the line “produced by Dow Chemical,” also a line in “Napalm Notes.” When the speaker asks a white woman to borrow a Bic lighter, the woman throws the implement at her – “not simply ‘chucking’ it either … You could say she ‘slung’ or ‘slanged’ it / (the small plastic lighter) with velocity” – and quips, “Made by Dow.” “She linking the Bic to the poem / and the line where she got it,” Nguyen writes.

The disconnect between the white woman in the “cinched / vintage coat” and Pillbox hat and the racialized narrator is clear, as is the former’s racism, manifest in a profound lack of empathy regarding the nature of the poem she has heard. There are echoes of the woman’s attitude in “From Vogue Magazine 1970,” a prose snippet that begins, “This is the year of the orient.” The extract offers a snapshot of exoticism that cultural critic Edward Saïd classified “oreintalism” – “the Shanghai Express, the kimono, the obi belt, the lotus flower” – before explicitly categorizing this as a Western “fantasy.”

Derogatory Western stereotypes of Easterners crop up in various poems – “Ching: a cartoon plunder / Chong: a gangplank gratitude” – though equally prevalent is the inherently divided nature of the immigrant, who is neither home nor at home in an adopted country. Nguyen writes about refugees who “learned English from The Young / and the Restless” and in “Seeds and Crumbs” takes as her “famous mise-en-scène” the Doris Day ditty “Che Sera Sera.”

But these Western touchstones are complicated by the nuance other poems provide to the Vietnamese language and experience. “Tones in the Vietnamese Language” showcases the difference various accents and grammatical marks make in defining a single syntactical unit (not incidentally for the collection’s broader themes, the unit is the two-letter word “ma”). “Exercise 14” contains a group of phrases to be translated into Vietnamese, the last of which is, “Why do you ask such a question?” And “From On ‘New Music’ ” identifies three themes in Vietnamese music, all of which are predicated on tragedy.

A Thousand Times You Lose Your Treasure is perched on the precipice between East and West, past and present. The stylistic presentation recalls Sappho, a stated influence, but also uses negative space to invoke silence and the persistence of memory. As Nguyen navigates the psychic distance between her mother and herself, and between her mother’s birthplace and her refuge in North America, she finds meaning in the lacunae between people and places, in song and in language that proves untranslatable. The blank verse poems resemble deconstructed lyrics that employ fragmentary words and phrases to highlight the limitations of memory to capture the full weight of the past: “Lose the word lose / in its original shape // You lose every other / word as in most words.” This collection is, at its core, an act of reclamation.

Home and away: the dislocations of place and self in Hoa Nguyen’s A Thousand Times You Lose Your Treasure
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