Hieu Minh Nguyen
Coffee House Press: 2018
Waytogo Charlie” — the nightmare of history still skewers this family in the Vietnamese diaspora — “spit out the dip tucked behind your lips / and let daddy teach you how it feels to win”, as the long eponymous poem “Nguyen” goes on to probe “what the Midwest did to that rice-blood”. Not Here is the collection’s title, but it’s in the Midwest where Nguyen stands — and is made to kneel, as victim of racism and homophobia. Stitching this collection together is a sequence of “White Boy Time Machine” poems, one of which, subtitled “Override”, points to a history of “white men describing a landscape / so they can claim it … / a man’s pink tongue razing the horizon”. So in “Ode to the Pubic Hair Stuck in my Throat”: “remind me / what it’s like to speak / without / a white man / flickering in my throat”.
But the politics in this book are those of identity politics rather than an attack on US imperium. The recurring words “‘kneeling” and “mouth” — like “flickering” and “razing” — chart a subservience-dominance to do with both gay sex and bullying, with both homo-eroticism and homophobia. Some backstory pins this down, though it comes through as the front story often enough and is the source of the imagery and energy of the collection.
Nguyen was raised in a public housing project in St Paul, Minnesota, by his single-mother refugee from Vietnam, was bullied as a boy for being non-white and gay and was sexually molested by his primary school teacher. He had to assert his queerness against his mother, “my defiance soiling the lace / white landscape of her desires”. “Somewhere between Saigon and Sacramento / she would sing my favorite song / if I just waved / my lover’s white skin / like a flag in surrender”, and she can only partly forgive him because his current gay lover is white. So — in the logic of his self-repressive shame in “White Boy Time Machine: Instruction Manual” — “If I’m anything, I’m a boy inside his mother’s body / shovelling coal like a screaming red engine”.