RED JUICE by HOA NGUYENSUEYEUN JULIETTE LEE reviews
Red Juice by Hoa Nguyen
(Effing Press, 2005)
Red Juice is muscularly delicate. With a messy precision, these new poems balance Nguyen’s concerns as a citizen, mother, writer, and woman with her art. They dare to matter with the same quiet integrity that colors the everyday her meditations inhabit.
I had this idea stubbornly
Dog still barking
Write something “new” about the national tragedy
These poems are a response to the uncertain and violent political climate we all currently live in. The way Nguyen’s poem states this is significant--it’s an imperative. We must respond, and that response must be fresh, “new,” even in the midst of the interruptions and distractions that make up life. But how can one respond to such a thing? If the “national tragedy” refers to 9/11, I’d request that nobody write another word. Mostly because a lot of what I’ve seen seems too eager to capitalize on the sentiments that the attack stirred up, whether its the stiff-upper-lip, never-forgive patriotism of some or the angsty, pre-fabricated dissidence of others. What do these new poems have to offer on the matter?
Up Nursing then make tea
The word war is far
says my boy about the cat
Aside from the headlines and news clips, many Americans scarcely think about the fact that the nation is still entrenched in a conflict that daily takes new lives. Compared with the exigencies of new motherhood, for example, war is far. Many of us, myself included, probably think about and experience national conflict this way. To notice and acknowledge this, on Nguyen’s part, is significant, and a small aspect of what makes these particular poems “new.”
I think anthrax
& small pox vax
Pour hot water on dried nettles
Filter more water for the kettle
to revive the lyric
After acknowledging how embedded we are in our everyday lives, one could read those last lines from this poem as hitting a skeptical or even defeated note. What can poetry possibly accomplish in times like this, with lives and subjectivities like ours? It seems to me that Nguyen’s willingness to feel disconnected is what actually enables poetry to matter in this context. The act of brewing dried nettles stands alongside concerns about biological warfare. One could read this a variety of ways--I see it as another example of the abstract and far imbuing and coloring the concrete and near. The two are connected because Nguyen recognizes that they are. So “Why try / to revive the lyric”? Because doing so is one means of furthering this awareness. Because lyric, with its ecstatic logic and pregnant spaces, might help turn the dichotomous us/them mentality at work today.
And I do think it’s true that men stole
the magical instruments of women
& we were too busy
with ordinary life
to worry about this
Red Juice is interested in gender, which isn’t actually all that separable from Nguyen’s interest in political engagement or civics. Through simple observations and the lyric rendering of her daily activities and thoughts, Nguyen persuasively makes the case for a type of feminine poetics, one that refuses to separate her consciousness from her gender. For example, “A Lily Mother” begins with an abstracted, disembodied sensual dizziness: “A lily mother gaping is a chasm / no that’s chaos a swirl hole.” The poem coalesces and turns suddenly on the line “When talk is dirty and we do it.” The I of the poem then appears, now fully enfleshed, combining herself with the floral allusions from the first half of the piece.
I am vine-like with small white flowers
I’m eating breast milk (goat cheese) Leaves
and fruit hanging down
Nguyen’s poems express a connection between creativity and womanhood. “I am a weaver” she quotes in “The Secrecy of Arms at Dawn.” “I spun the baby out of you and me.” Nguyen tempers the I’s stance, however, complicating the standard woman/creator-via-childbirth sentiment: “I am she who unknots the cord / and lashes us boatless.” What fascinated me about this particular poem was the use of the word “lashes.” I kept vaccilating between reading it as “tying down” and as “whipping.” Regardless how you read that word, the poem ends with an assertion of the speaker’s power.
As for whether one should read “we were too busy / with ordinary life / to worry about this,” “this” meaning the theft of their magical instruments, as a condemnation against women—I offer the following thought: Red Juice insists upon the daily ordinary and its connection to the universal, even the sacred (“It’s chaos & love Big / Old”). When “ordinary life” is as beautiful and engaged as Red Juice presents it, what was really lost? If men did steal the magical instruments, perhaps they missed the skill and knowledge that powered them.
Maybe my baby
Turtles and blue eyes
Red Juice explores ethnicity. What are the boundaries for claiming an ethnic identity? What gets left behind, and what gets passed on? Nguyen allows the flexibility and messy precision of translation to speak to these complexities of these questions.
Ma = horse
Ma = rice seedling
Ma = graveyard
Ma = mother
In the end, Nguyen’s poem suggests, there are no answers, only life. The poem ends with her considering her son, and responding to his (here unvoiced) queries.
To return to Nguyen’s interest in writing something “new” about the national tragedy—I’d like to suggest that 9/11 is the farthest thing from Nguyen’s mind. Perhaps the true national tragedy is our misrecognizing the small details and moments of life as distractions from the business at hand rather than being the business at hand.
Sueyeun Juliette Lee currently lives in Northampton, MA and is completing an MFA degree in poetry and a certificate in Advanced Feminist Studies from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. She edits Corollary Press and her chapbook “Trespass Slightly In” is available online at Coconut Press (www.coconutpoetry.org). She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. She also wants you to know that Hoa Nguyen is also the author of Your Ancient See Through (Subpress).