I first heard Diana Khoi Nguyen read her work a couple of summers ago at a poetry retreat in New York City for Asian American poets. Every night we participated in a salon where we each read and shared something we’d written. I remember being in awe as she read a piece about a brother — how her pauses and breaths startled and haunted me. I wondered (and tried to imagine) what the poem looked like on the page that directed her to read like that. I don’t know why I didn’t think to ask her. A few months later I learned she had a book coming out, and that book would win many awards, including being a finalist for the 2019 National Book Award.

When I received her book, “Ghost Of,” I finally could see (and hear and feel) the shape of her poems. Nguyen’s poems are as much of a visual experience as they are literary and musical, with each facet affecting and shaping the others. Some poems feature shaped text printed sideways and layered on top of each other forming new patterns, some include photographs, and some include numbered sections. The poems embody both chaos and order.

The poems in “Ghost Of” grapple with the loss of Nguyen’s brother, Oliver, who took his life by suicide. She frames some of her poems with the literal frame of family photographs. As Nguyen explains in an interview with Literary Hub, two years before her brother took his life “in the middle of the night, Oliver took every hanging portrait of the family down from the walls of our childhood home, and carefully sliced his visage out of each photograph before returning the framed pictures back in their places.” These altered photographs serve as the foundation to her Triptychs and Gyotaku poems in the collection.

Each of the five Triptychs include three parts: the altered photograph, text in the shape of the silhouetted body which was cut out and words that fill up the frame of the altered photograph leaving a void of white space where her brother’s image would have been.

Ghost Of

In “Ghost Of,” a National Book Award for poetry finalist, Diana Khoi Nguyen combines images, words and shapes in poetry about family, tragedy and living.

The photograph in the first Triptych is of Nguyen as a child standing outside a house with her sister, parents and the small hole where her brother cut his boyhood form away. The text in the shape of her brother’s cutout silhouette reads, “mindful of the setting he counted off the seconds in his head as the solitary bee struggles to fly inside the walls of an empty house, her sisters dead below her; no wind, no rain; we stayed.” The enjambments “slice up the words so that they fit into the tiny space in the shape of the cutout, and at times a single letter ends the line only to be completed by the rest of the word at the beginning of the following line. The fragmented and broken words create confusion and discomfort, and add contexts to complicate relationships to words, echoing the experience of grief.

The final section of the first Triptych, in contrast to the broken words of the previous page, features a run-on sentence that starts: “framing, an act of enclosing, of closing off yourself from your environment and all the unintended sounds — car stereos, solitary bird in the tree, the male mouse alone in his cell who detects the trace of a female, pattering rain …” The meditation goes on, skipping over the space where her brother’s image would have been; once again Nguyen fragments words to create pauses, gaps, holes and emptiness. She contrasts sound and silence. Musically, she weaves in repetitions only to disrupt and invert them:

“I am listening to a needle drop. I am listening to a needle drop. I am listening to a needle drop. I am listening to I am dropping all the needles. I keep on dropping the needles.”

The needles in her hand eventually morph into an “amplified cactus of this palm of mine.” Nguyen tries to make sense of loss, pain and grief with logic loops and ruminations, but her sentence never ends. It ends abruptly with no conclusion or punctuation — “... we bewilder what we fill in what bewilders us to find in what” — suggesting grief is a journey that doesn’t end but transforms, and here is a snapshot of what grief looks like in this moment.

Some of the poems in “Ghost Of” refer to patterns in nature to make sense of human nature; to make sense of suffering, loss, identity, family and displacement. Nguyen weaves in the behavior patterns of ants, deer, bees and flowering plants, and yet, as she says in the opening poem, “A Bird in Chile, and Elsewhere,” “there is no ecologically safe way to mourn.” Patterns and connections continue and extend to familial history, and Nguyen asks about trauma that existed before her own birth. In “A Woman May Not Be a Safe Place,” she writes, “a god let my mother suffer in Vietnam, now we go on suffering after her,” and in “Exodus” she writes, “And if you bypass a war, a war/ wouldn’t bypass you”

“Ghost Of” is not simply a collection of poems to read. It is a collection to be experienced in the interconnected layers of deep looking — at what is visible and invisible, what is physical and what is history or memory — close listening — to the sounds, the music and the silence — and to notice what it feels like to survive. 

Leah Shlachter is the adult program coordinator at Teton County Library. She reads poetry and nonfiction and not enough fiction. She likes to read several books at once as they create a sort of conversation with each other.

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