Sunday Review: Violet Energy Ingots
a poetry collection from Hoa Nguyen
[ Wave Books / 2016 / 104 pp ]
A clean, minimalist exterior envelopes a series of short poems that I like to call ‘grocery store poetry’ in Hoa Nguyen’s latest collection. That sounds diminishing, but let me explain—to scribble a fragment of an idea down on scrap paper or on one’s phone while waiting in line at a grocery store, coffee shop, etc. comes naturally (yet still so often unexpectedly) to poets living in urban areas. The most enduring phrases and insightful moments can come from instances like these—caught between one place and the next, a pocket of time that exists then and only then. Nguyen’s poems reflect this in their fragmented style. While most deal with much of what one might call the domestic, many of them recall notes taken while studying or highlighted passages from textbooks. The poems ‘Pharaoh Notes’ and ‘Machiavelli Notes’ are poetic in form but factual in nature. Many more deal with historical figures, drawing in the political aspects of life, such as the poem ‘Who was Andrew Jackson?’ Nguyen answers exactly that for us through a series of facts in a poem that reads like a poem while feeling like a punch to the gut.
Characters out of myth make their way onto the page, too. There are mentions of Diana, Orpheus, Mimir, Eve—all familiar faces in poetry, but here, in Nguyen’s hands, they are pressed between poems featuring spring in Toronto, cutting onions, and dreams of old friends. The distance between such stories and daily life is null. It suddenly makes perfect sense to place Mimir’s head and a cutting board spread with onion slices side by side.
Violet Energy Ingots doesn’t have a theme—it just is. Her work is allowed to be without giving shape to any particular kind of being. This form of writing is incredibly soothing. It allows the work—and the reader—space to breathe. There is no urgency in Nguyen’s writing, especially in those moments where one can almost see her thought processes—noted corrections and misnamings prick certain poems with a hint of humour. But particularly lovely are her poems that deal with big feelings in small ways, ones that, of course, involve the presence of beloved others. In ‘PS,’ Nguyen takes a sentiment and style often attributed William Carlos Williams’ poems and makes it her own:
If you get this
before you leave
take some California irises
home with you
Put in fridge until spring
Plant in circle
Such simplicity throughout this collection only heightens the feeling of being in the moment. It makes connecting to these poems as easy as glancing at a grocery list, but with all of the emotion and none of the exactness. Well, perhaps some exactness—the poem ‘I Am Too’ captures a feeling I previously thought near impossible to put into words:
I am too much
I am forever
too much and every day
you never come
to my house
If ever there were a collection of poetry to read between sweeping the floors and scrubbing the dishes, the body moving through a place where thoughts of pharaohs float with thoughts of tomatoes and terry-cloth bathrobes, it would be this one.
Visit Wave Books to purchase the book.
Reviewer / Terry Abrahams
Five Things with Francisco-Luis White
1. The last thing that made you smile.
Well, there’s this man. And the chance of snowfall.
2. A secret.
That song ‘Crossroads’ by Bone Thugs & Harmony really disturbs me.
3. The last thing you wrote.
A poem about the beautiful Black boys of Puerto Rico, imperialism, and what have you. Also, I’m always working on some 600 or 800 word piece to pitch to someone who might cut me a check. Sometimes this writing thing works out in a way that people want to read it. Other times, it just keeps me from talking to myself on the train.
4. Favourite city.
Boston, easily. I’ve never been as inspired by any other place. The people and the structures are weathered, tough. When you juxtapose that with sounds of the tugboats and sea birds in Eastie, the murmur of the Black folks the city tries to forget in Grove Hall or Dudley and the hopeful buzz of students in the Public Garden, that’s the living stuff that poetry is made of. I’m in love with spots where the pavement has failed and you can touch the cobblestones beneath. My best, most formative years have been spent in New England.
5. What you’d place in a time capsule.
Lots of things. A Chicago rapper called Noname released a project called Telefone last year though, which I think is an important moment for not just hip hop but poetry. Anything that says “President Donald J. Trump,” so the world never forgets the potential of whiteness, and American bigotry particularly. Also, a pack of those weird Oreos that are filled with marshmallow Peeps. What a time, right?
Francisco-Luis White is an Afro-Latinx writer, storyteller, and advocate residing in the District of Columbia. They contribute to various sites and have a collection of poetry forthcoming from Indolent Books in 2017.
If you would like to be considered for the ‘Five Things’ series, email your answers to:
Pissing on the Lawn of a Foreclosed Home
poetry from Ariel Francisco
“What’s another patch of dead grass anyway?”
Echoing the moods of Baudelaire and O’Hara, Ariel’s poems are often dim and bright in their more vulnerable moments. It’s one thing to write about drunken loneliness, but Ariel takes the often-humiliating act of public urination and turns into self-deprecating humor seen in “grimy window[s]”. Truly, the beauty of this poem rests on that chorus of “frogs … crying for someone else”—that loud distance which only increases the claustrophobia of this short poem. You don’t need to know the beginning or even really the end of this narrative, but you’ve already been there, under “[t]hat gold coin of a moon”.
Visit Yes, Poetry to read the poem.
Contributing Editor / Hannah Cohen
Behind Closed Beaks
short story from Ania Payne
Ania Payne’s flash fiction is about animals, which is to say, it is really about humans. In three short snapshots the Arizona, Arkansas, and Michigan state birds become fallible and likeable characters. Vesting them with opinions, habits and tragedies that are a bit oversized but consequently incredibly endearing, Payne speaks to modern archetypes of the selfish roustabout, the diva, and the tragic naïf. Unique in their own take, each bird is still a reflection of ourselves, for who amongst us hasn’t had moments of pettiness, selfishness, posturing, plagiarizing, and hope, sincerity, and blind faith; for, haven’t we all sometimes been the robin—
Visit The Blueshift Journal to read the story.
Contributing Editor / Reneé Bibby
poetry from Chimwemwe Undi
“we translate ourselves
with borrowed tongues and are called
articulate for it.
(the rest of us are dead.)”
You wouldn’t think that reading could be such an aural experience, but language has this strange connection to sound and memory and imagery and meaning that is inextricable from the other senses. Undi’s poetry is rhythmic and crisp, language that is certain of itself, poetry that takes a voice of its own when you read it. Kindling tackles the history of criticism, violence, sidelining, and stereotyping that years of racism has enacted on black bodies. It challenges every iteration of black as underestimated, as dismissed: “for specialized porn search terms and basketball teams. our negro magic, our noble savagery // we entertainment and twitter feed // the best of us / are the black friend” It’s clear-eyed and succinct the way poetry should be, unwavering and illuminative. This is proof that poetry is more than just words and images that sound and fit well together, it is more than one lasting image; it builds itself until it is more than just the words on the page, something that can’t be contained by just language. It is entirely unflinching.
“when you trace a finger
up your branchless family tree
and find a legacy of kindling,
how do you not make flint
from your learned hardness”
Visit The Rusty Toque to read the poem.
Contributing Editor / Joyce Chong
Secret Internet Search History
poetry from MJ Santiago
‘Secret Internet Search History,’ by MJ Santiago, is compact, powerful poem that riffs on the familiar inspiration of an “internet search” to build out a workplace narrative of racist macroaggressions and relentless centering of whiteness as the cultural ideal, specifically when it comes to children.
The opening stanza is kind of funny if a little bit uneasy, a sort of throwaway childish innocence inflected with violence, but the second stanza leaves no doubt where the poem wants to go, and the “secret” in the title takes on a heavier weight — the weight of having to deal with dehumanization on as deep a level as genetics. There is an utter loneliness in this poem, and when the author ends the poem with, “I want to leave this place but can only / leave myself,” your heart is a little heavier with the knowledge that there are unknown generations of work to be done between now and a future where this poem doesn’t need to be written.
Visit Reservoir to read the poem.
Contributing Editor / Andrew Sargus Klein
poetry from Eduardo C. Corral
I’ll admit that I’m always looking for a fairytale, though I’m more concerned with the journey than the happy ending. The journey back to intimacy in ‘Sentence’ is so satisfying. I promise that you’ll want to eavesdrop on these remarkably tender moments, like a kid peeking through their fingers at a kiss onscreen.
The poem opens with the blacksmith working: [he] “rinses the metal / fragrant his thighs fragrant his sneer.” A symbiosis is created between the blacksmith and the tools. His body and his body of work carry the same distinct fragrance, and the whiff of it ghosts my nostrils. Later, the speaker tells us of their journey: “alone in the desert for months / a nomad in a kimono of pressed-together dust.” Like the blacksmith, the speaker is also doused in their former environment. It must be startling for the blacksmith to see the speaker again, their body overtaken by a place he’s never encountered. The moment seems to ask: what does it mean to only experience a space through another’s body?
The speaker’s gaze is remarkably warm on the blacksmith, taking in all the details that they’ve missed. If a gaze can be a touch, the speaker has their hands all over this man and it only amplifies the distance. I’d been waiting with bated breath for some reconciliation. In fact, Corral’s deft control over spacing and line only allows us to take the story in pieces, creating a structural tension that matches the narrative. Going beyond the gaze and actually touching is a feat, and still comes at a distance in the last lines: “gently he hammers gold into a sentence gently / the sentence enters me.” Yet it’s enough. It’s the moment where my breath unraveled.
Visit Poetry to read the poem.
Contributing Editor / Nix Thérèse