‘The Translation of Grief’ by Hieu Minh Nguyen

— Joyce Chong

Any adjective can be true if you cry hard enough. I can lie and say I haven’t written the poem, haven’t buried her over and over at my desk, haven’t described the ash of her body.

Today I have for you a poem written and performed by Hieu Minh Nguyen (whose book Not Here is now available from Coffee House Press) in Button Poetry. ‘The Translation of Grief’ is a rumination on the anticipation of loss, the inherently immigrant experience of narrating a loved ones’ life through crossed oceans.

I fill my lungs with English, I numb her skin with English, I English the light she walks into / I kill her just to raise her from the dead, I anticipate this grief by exhausting it with music.

Nguyen attempts to divine the path of grief, to forecast its downfall in centimetres and inches accumulated, in precipitation, despite knowing that grief has an atmosphere and a melting temperature of its own. There is so much layered within this poem, this performance. The humanness of mortality, our own fixation on its certainty, the task of legacy, of carrying another’s story to fruition. The act of translating denotes multiple meanings, converting grief into words, a state change towards the tangible. Converting life to story and words, condensing impossibly between countries and languages and years and lives shifted, almost indecipherably. How close can we come to holding grief in our hands, to knowing its weight?

It is the habit of the living to see everyone you love and imagine them dead. I can lick the dirt off of all of your faces. I can sing any dirge in any key but the translation of grief will always be flat. There will always be the contrasting light between what is expected and what will change your bones.


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