Mai Der Vang, Afterland, (Graywolf Press, $16.00).
If the Hmong peoples of Laos have any presence on this side of the Atlantic, it may be in the unfortunate environment of Clint Eastwood’s film Gran Torino, described by Timeout as the ‘ultimate “get off my lawn” movie.’ In that film, Eastwood’s grouchy character forms a relationship with the Hmong family next door. In that film too, a female Hmong comments that amongst the Hmong in the US, ‘the girls go to college, the boys go to gangs.’ Mai Der Vang’s first volume is, much like Ocean Vuong’s book reviewed in these pages before, a book haunted by the American involvement in the Vietnam War in the sixties and seventies. Where Vuong wrote directly about the effects of the war, Vang’s Hmong people were ‘used’ by the CIA in what has come to be known as the ‘secret war’ in Laos, to fight the Vietcong using guerrilla tactics. When the Americans pulled out of Vietnam, the Hmong were left to ‘take the fall’; a ‘fall’ which is described in graphic and poignant detail in the second poem of the book ‘Dear Soldier of the Secret War.’
Thus, when this book is dedicated ‘For the Ancestors,’ there is an understandable searching back for a kind of purity; in particular, a purer relationship to land and identity within landscape. In ‘Three,’ that relationship is literally within the land, ‘Grave guardian,/ slumber with bones from now on.// You are closer to earth than the reindeer who buries his head// in snow smelling for moss,/ nearer than well water,/ closer than the fox.’ There’s a nice sense of the images reaching out from the dead to the living elements, and the movement of the couplets down the page seems delicately paced.
There are moments, though, when the poems veer rather close to something which is rather precious. ‘This Heft upon your Leaving’ begins, ‘I peel to the centre for the shape/ of an answer to give you,// for the way an answer cures/in wet resin// or can hook through the days/ towards the pendulous// blink of your eye.’ And there are hefty indentations where some of the line breaks occur. Clearly such language is highly metaphorical. The reader is, perhaps, invited to respond to the text in whatever way they find suitable. At the same time, however, that sense of metaphor is slightly either/or; it either works for a particular reader, or it doesn’t. And if the metaphor doesn’t work, there is sometimes a sense of moving across a slightly facile surface, beneath which there is something that just seems a little far away.
A better love poem in this collection is ‘Days of 87,’ which begins, ‘You by the door before me,/ Tall, unshaven, arms at your side,// Oversized duffle by your feet./ I stare at the ironing board, unable// To speak. My fingers unfold the shirt’s/ collar before trailing it with an iron.’ Of course, to compare ‘Days of 87’ with ‘The Heft upon your leaving’ is not to compare like with like exactly. And it might appear that I’m suggesting the plain-speaking of the former is somehow better than the metaphor of the latter. But the former feels a little more democratic and open, than ‘The Heft upon your leaving,’ where metaphor doesn’t always feel earned.
There are other lovely poems where there is much more sense of balance, and where Vang feels in charge of her craft, as in ‘Gray Vestige,’ which describes the finding the body of a humpback whale upon a beach, ‘Soon, you will// be taken, your salty oils,/ fragment of sea-frosted spine./ Take every sinew adrift where// barnacles splayed pectoral/ fins, your mammal tissue/ putrefied into aquatic skin.’ Here, Vang’s use of the second person in direct address to the corpse of the whale feels earned and achieved; the transformations, of ‘sea-frosted spine’ or ‘putrefied into aquatic skin’ seem robust and right.
Thus, this is a debut volume which has its successes and poems which don’t feel quite so solid; but this is ever the case with a first book. What seems absolutely certain is that here is a poet with a real subject matter and the technique to mine that subject matter in consistent and interesting ways.