Two epigraphs announce Hieu Minh Nguyen’s credo in Not Here. The lines of verse are worth quoting in full: Jorie Graham’s “This is / what the living do: go in.”, Jason Shinder’s “Let me keep on describing things to be sure they happened.” Not Here masticates life and spits it out in glorious rhythm and rhyme. thirty-nine poems grapple with the poet’s familial, cultural, historical and sexual existence, the space he carves in order to live.
I bit his lip
& the ash spat back
my grandmother’s bones
I rose from his lap
& the dirt sunk
a hundred years.
I lay in his bed
& watched everyone
fall into their mothers.
— ‘White Boy Time Machine: Instruction Manual’
Obvious, but worth stating: this is a poet who knows how his words should look on the page; how the dissonance between experience and language is physically manifested, so that each line of verse is a reckoning; how language itself enacts spatial placement—take ‘dírt súnk / a húndred yéars’, for instance, a spondee and two iambs. Look how the vowels here pull you down, the guttural ‘unk’ solidifying into the (literal) drawn out ‘years’. How the speaker’s living and rising into love (‘I rose from his lap’) wrestles with history, with trauma, a two-way stretch of self.
Not Here will be loved, sticky-taped copies will adorn many collections. Like Ocean Vuong, the violent intensity of the poet’s life finds precise, piercing articulation in his art. His verse is memorable, quotable but in a way that’ll give you pause. You don’t just throw his lines out there, for they are painful, devastating even—take this section, for instance, from ‘Again, Let Me Tell You What I know About Trust’:
I guess I’m trying to understand what makes a man / carry guilt the same way he would a bat […] Till this day every headlight is a lullaby / Imagine: waking up, but this time it isn’t your father / in the driver’s seat, but a man who holds your head / to his lap until your breath is a song pulled from his skin / how just like your father, even when you begged / wouldn’t take you home, not until he was ready to be alone.
I wondered what it would be like, to hear these lines read out loud. A quick search on YouTube and I see that 80,000 people have seen Nguyen read ‘Notes on Staying’. Another 44,000 have watched his delivery of ‘Haunt Me’. You can’t talk about being ‘moved’ or ‘touched’ at this stage. He’s reached it, the sublime.
Coffee House Press