THE GRANDFATHER I MET by Nhu Xuân Nguyễn

now hidden behind the altar  

in the foremost room.  

  

I remember him less  

than the clock 

 

above the kitchen table  

of my childhood home.  

  

Two hands  

and a blue ring.  

  

A brown stain  

on a bed  

  

never warm again.  

The smell of molasses.  

  

I don’t know  

if I ever knew his name.  

  

My aunt told me  

in his last days  

  

he kept asking  

for his grandchildren.  

  

The family said tomorrow  

tomorrow  

  

tomorrow. She said  

he asked for me  

  

but I wanted her to be  

a liar  

  

all the way through.  

In the old land  

  

the country of rain 

and lacquer 

 

dust masks 

and motor oil 

 

sugar thick milk

thinned with earth and water

 

my mother told me  

the two of us once  

  

disappeared.  

The old man and the child  

  

hand in hand  

walking to a café  

  

without a word  

to the house behind us, 

 

the house

expecting loss. 

 

But I would remember  

if I was lost.  

  

That is how  

fear works.  

  

We only vanished.  

The time between us, vanished. 

 

Footsteps muffled 

by more footsteps. 

 

A long hill 

up to a faceless crowd 

 

at attention behind me.

In the crematory,

 

a body moving

in every direction

 

at once. My hand against 

the glass. As close

 

as I would be to knowing

my dead.

 

What does the title, “Emerging poet,” mean to you?

 

I think an "emerging poet" means a poet who has yet to define a clear relationship between their work and that of their community. When I think of coming into view or becoming apparent or prominent, I imagine there must be a context, a place and time, a set of traditions and norms that are being accepted or rejected or changed, and people already living where I want my work to live. Of course, poets have many relationships with many communities, so I suppose there must be many opportunities to "emerge"—in new landscapes, in new roles—and I don't think that the relationship to the poetry community is necessarily the most important one.

 

Do you consider yourself an “emerging” poet? Why or why not?

 

Because I don't really know whose work my work speaks to, yes, I think so. I feel at a bit of a loss to explain my own relationship to my writing, much less any relationship that exists between my poetry and my communities. I would like my practice to heal me, to teach me about my own experiences instead of obfuscating them—but I don't have a tangible process that accomplishes that. There's so much I don't know about my history as a trans Vietnamese American that I can't even begin to place myself as a poet in that context in any substantive way. I get the sense that some people see that I exist, and those happen to be people I love and look up to so that seems important, but I'm not sure that I know enough about the people I come after to claim to be "emerging."

 

What do you think it takes to be “recognized” in the poetry community?

 

First I think it requires defining what kind of recognition is being sought, what it means to achieve that recognition, and by what parts of what poetry communities. Being published in a journal is a kind of recognition. Getting paid to do a reading is a kind of recognition. Having a conversation with a reader or audience member about a shared experience is a kind of recognition. Hearing lines whispered or jokingly shouted between friends is a kind of recognition. Living on in the work of others—in poems or in acts of kindness—is a kind of recognition. As for what it takes, which always implies what should one do to achieve something, I'm probably a terrible person to ask—I feel like I never get anything done. I am told making concrete goals and breaking them down into very small and manageable steps and doing them one by one is a great way to make progress. I hope doing that will get me somewhere I want to be.

 

How do you think power politics shape the poetry community?

 

I don't believe that there's anything special about the poetry community that makes the effect of power politics any different. Poets aren't immune to personhood. Imagining so makes identifying and ending power imbalances even more difficult. The poetry community replicates the power dynamics that dominate the rest of the world and will do so until those power structures are dismantled from all our institutions. To the extent that poetry communities may be more radical, I think it's worth remembering that nobody is ever just a poet and that poetry communities do not exist in changeless sociopolitical vacuums. Even people who have learned how to healthily sustain the struggle for freedom (and I am not one of those people) will see oppressive systems evolve as well. Or we might not see it until it's too late. And of course people who face trauma are always shaped by it. I think one struggle will be identifying responses to trauma that lead to recovery but are still, in the long run, maladaptive for us and for our communities.

 

What does community mean to you?

 

I think community means people who share time with each other. I think about sharing time specifically because that is the measure of life that seems most apparent, most valuable, and most variable in form. I mean that the things we spend our time on—poems, plum trees, telescopes, city blocks—can be the basis of a community, can be ways of being in community with others, as well as sharing a physical space and time. I think because there are so many ways to externalize our memories and extend ourselves, there are as many ways to live in the world, and maybe that makes each of us less alone, regardless of how lonely we feel.

 

 

 

NHU XUÂN NGUYỄN is a trans Vietnamese American writer. Their work appears or is forthcoming in The Offing, Deluge, and The Journal.

 

 

 

 

 

Please reload