Ghosts Still Walking by Do Nguyen Mai (Platypus Press, 2016)
Review by Greg Bem (@gregbem)
I cannot live in a world of
suffocation; you cannot live
in a world of restraint.
We all have our histories, and as they overlap we find ourselves in moments of assertion and crisis, individualized and collectivized at once. There is liberation in our autonomy just as there is burden; there is a body of hope within the group just as there is an entrapment. In many ways, Ghosts Still Walking is a book of poems that approaches the epiphanies that explain these moments. Poet Do Nguyen Mai carefully maneuvers around her own history, the history of the people and peoples she identifies with, and those people and peoples that in many ways represent her history, distanced as they may or may not be.
Maneuverability comes in the form of precision: a poetry that at times embraces these moments as explorations for personal growth, but also understands the critical power of representation and removal. Stories told, abstractions applied, and truths unraveled, these poems are waypoints for the reader offering a series of outlines for possible outcomes. But the book is not so easily mapped, not so explicit, and that is where Do’s craft, layered, translucent, permeable, demonstrates its power as staging, as a framework or radiance from which to find a foothold or further illumination.
Daughters, sisters, mothers, sit mending
tears in their aprons, the sounds in their souls;
gathered together in quiet homes composing letters,
piecing fragmented memories into ink stains
resembling words they do not know.
Even the girls dodging bullets to stay in school
are too afraid to learn the language of war--
from “Post Denied: Address Unknown"
As I read it, Ghosts Still Walking became as much a book of poetry finding ways forward through the bloody histories of Vietnam as it became a book of poetry seeking to prevent similar, personalized histories from further developing within the speaker’s life. It is thus a poetry about tracking survival and applying it, relating it, triangulating it to daily life. It explores the many concepts of the “other” distanced but knowable, the Vietnamese person as an archetype, as a ghost that breathes and exists far from its source, far from its ideal space of life.
A fracturing occurs through the displacing, darkened resolution of geographical distance, of decayed time, and of decontextualization. Do’s work confronts the tensions between being there then, and her poems border dreamlike between the worlds of Vietnam and the United States of then and of today, nearly mythologized in their epic retellings and reimagination, their descriptions and minimizations.
While many books within the past several decades have explored the similar trajectories of these modes of survival and migration, Do’s work contributes to the canon by breaking down certainties and boundaries. A mesh of light exists in Ghosts Still Walking that blurs and blends the past, present, and future of a united and disconnected Vietnamese existence, consistently uncertain and yet also filled with potential, with possibility.
with their wolf fangs, tear the pearls
from your plum-blossom lips so that
they may steal the words of your melodies
and call your own war songs theirs;
from “For Khán Ngọc”
Being an outsider whose own relationship to conflict is unique and disconnected from Do’s own intimate roots, I read the book with many moments of pause. There sits within these poems astounding, paralyzing moments of awe for its readers. I found it remarkably invigorating as I built the capacity to understand the poet. Do’s process for reconstructing images of value and influence, for elevating the life of the women, children, and men whose worlds all contribute to her own, exhibited a stuttering and enlightening effect. Storytelling and capturing the many moments that bind us, that allow us to find forgiveness and catharsis, is a strong quality to Do’s work.
This book is a shocking first release from a writer whose mature mind is capable of positioning deft lines of verse into limits that give a profound respect for the atrociously endless series of conflicts and tensions filling both Vietnam and the Vietnamese American identity. But it is also a book coming from a writer whose mind is awake to the profound drive for love and understanding in a world that, as described in these poems, offers so much challenge and difficulty.
Roses, even apart from their roots, still have thorns, and removing them does not erase the memory of pain.
from “Tongues of Fire”
Reading through the book in its entirety is much like walking up a broken mountain staircase, inspiring us to look down at our own feet as often as we look around ourselves in our continuously-elevated existence. To read Ghosts Still Walking is to see those contexts and peoples immediately around us who inform our decisions, in that we might better find the greater resolution for them and us, and all that such a resolution demands.