The Old Philosopher
Vi Khi Nao
Nightboat Books, 2016
Paperback, 80 pages
It took me days to
recover from soak up the first page of Vi Khi Nao’s The Old Philosopher (Nightboat Books, 2016), especially the line in the first poem “dear god I am god”: “I am am washing myself in dew,” in which we have the visible seam of a shift from identity to action. The next line quickly expands the notion of action to that of performance: “transgender performance art as identity.” Each poem in the collection affirms its protean self, its questions of how we name the world—particularly, gender—and its melding of love and violence, sexuality and god, politics and clothing, or play and discomfort. With so many bold juxtapositions, we readers get a peek at language dressed in layer upon lexical layer seen in such examples as “geopolitical orgasm,” “socialist shirt,” “chronometer garden”—we could say words are dressed in drag wandering across frames of reference —and we awaken to words not adhering to conventional semantics as if they can return to some origin in which “words are merely nudes.”
Nudity, not to mention lovers and orgasms, abounds in this book—and God and the Bible. By the second poem, “Fog,” we learn that “when god prays to himself / using the fog’s opaque cushion / we know god is a child / who pretends to pray.” There is intimacy at play here with a marveling, ambiguous mix of emotions. God pretending to play has a sorrowful tone because it is God who receives prayers yet doesn’t know how to pray, but his pretending also seems joyous as any act of pretending can be in a child’s imaginative play (maybe, to play is to pray). God’s acts and his imagination appear again in the poem “Snow”: “God superimposes his imagination on my primal flesh” and if the speaker is good, the result is “the soul of an / Angel…That looks like snow.” We have the cleansing beauty of the snow up against the dictatorial connotations of “superimposes.” Though God is not named in the poem “One Rib Removed,” God is the one who removes Adam’s rib; Adam speaks while his body starts to collapse and in this dire moment he manages to say “Annihilate the odor of naming,” implying the trap of being named, of being named a gender, “The Human Male.”
The Old Philosopher continues to explore how we name people, with Biblical allusions abutting newly forming stories: “Biblical Flesh” ends with “Lot’s wife,” known for becoming pillar of salt after looking at Sodom, and the next poem “Hay Bale and Asphalt” features a woman as hay bale and a man as asphalt, in other words, “a mixture / of // bituminous pitch with sand or gravel and why chromosome?” This pair is a playful reminder that we may associate one thing with one gender after a chance encounter—a hay bale falling onto the asphalt—and that we can see creation stories all around us. Later in the book, in the poem “Redolent Homosexuality,” there is “the bicycle seat on the pink table / sniffling a pink notepad,” which the speaker seems to visualize as a “horse” then asks “is the horse flamboyant, a homosexual?” and we finish with a toast at a wedding: “to the marriage that thrives on an odor.” In this poem, “odor” is celebratory, full of possibilities—New realities are being mapped.
These poems keep putting us at the center of some creation in which imagination or playfulness mix with power and brutality; the second and third poems in the book, “Fog” and “AA Meeting for a Limestone,” set up the pattern: the playfulness of “Fog” ending with “daffodil twirling in dew” is quickly undercut by the brutal acts found in next poem “AA Meeting for a Limestone” in which “They are going to edge my pretty face / in pure acid and grind my face down.” Ouch. But, I rationalize, we are just pretending, and ultimately, a ground stone isn’t so out of the ordinary. But I can’t forget the original Ouch. Again and again, Vi Khi Nao’s book renders multiplicities, not simplicities. The book allows us to free ourselves from restrictive semantics to participate in fictive worlds, yet it consistently reminds of the dangers of this unstable yet rich ground like “a fuck after surgery—/ On a wobbly bed.” It is a ménage a trois of intimacy, brutality, and fragility.
Throughout The Old Philosopher, we are made aware of systems of the body, of politics, and of language in these poems that investigate bonds that ensnare us and that propound new worlds—new ways of belonging—not limited by “binaries,” “social pressures,” and “semantic infrastructures.” Big tasks. This book, which undertakes such adventuring conceptual swerves, also asks us to scan our bodies; just in the first three poems the “knee,” “lips,” “thyroid,” and “heart” appear, but these body parts have a life of their own and generate their own mythmaking (“my lipless lips can talk a river no more,” admits the speaker in “AA Meeting for a Limestone”). Do you know the band The Books? They have a song that leads us into a meditative body scan but soon turns dark and grueling. I listen to it as both a parody of a gentle meditation and a rendering of what darkness lies within as the world inevitably presses upon our consciousness. Her poem “How Can Something So Moving Move Everything Around It” begins with a similar calm in the lines “The heart is a quiet mountain in the Northern Hemisphere of the Body” and then strips away that alluring contemplation in the lines “And some say the heart is cold like a large stone” and “There are different names for the heart: / Mount Hood, for instance, which lies / In Oregon like an alligator.” The heart becomes alligator. I rally with these surreal words, especially when they propel such fine images as “your toes shake their heads like guests at a one-star hotel.”
I also take heed of the shift early in the collection to an exploration of one’s heritage grounded in political history. In the poem “The Day God Smokes My Grandmother,” we learn of a grandmother who has died: “God pulls my grandmother / out of pack of finally made cigarette pack.” It may be the best grandmother poem I have ever read. We also get to know a mother, a seamstress in Southeast Vietnam, appearing here in these lines of an elegiac, sequenced prose poem: “There were times though when the Viet Cong / Came through my grandmother’s grapevine / And took my mother’s sewing machines.” We come to know the damage people have inflicted on others within political structures in a book that also includes the lines “to truly / write is to fuck darkness”—oft-quoted lines.
Toward the end of this collection, we find a poem that reads like an ars poetica, “The Enigmatic Demoiselle, Eloign”: “Words gather and group themselves into families / Ones that share similar symmetries / Or think they would like to bring another member / One especially that doesn’t belong here.” The theme of belonging is never far away. I admire this book for Vi Khi Nao’s ability to bring together many so-called opposites; The Old Philosopher stirs me to write, mix up linguistic habits, embrace multiplicities— but there is the risk of “smell[ing] too much like a conflicting / mixture of lavender and walleye” so says the speaker in “The Day God Smoked My Grandmother.” Though the poems remind us that the insight found in inventing is worthwhile and crucial for seeing beyond our immediate realities, their speakers are conscious of the risk of being a contrarian.
Even for this review, The Old Philosopher defies me as it holds more than what I have shared—I hope other reviewers will delve further into its themes of queerness or of the political history in Vietnam, among other subjects; it is the book’s expansiveness that will encourage me to keep returning to it, if I can first get past looking at the cover art by Leslie Lerner, “Scout Under a Copper Sky,” an artist also known for the unsettling blend of the imaginary and the real. Here is the book in front of me as real as real can be.
Cheryl Clark Vermeulen’s poems have appeared in Caketrain, Jubilat, Third Coast, DIAGRAM, EOAGH, Split Rock Review, and elsewhere. Author of the chapbook Dead-Eye Spring, she has never literally framed her M.F.A. diploma from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She is an Assistant Professor in Liberal Arts at Massachusetts College of Art and Design, a new mom, and an old soul.