Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War by Viet Thanh Nguyen (Harvard University Press, 2016)
Nguyen had me at the opening line: “This is a book on war, memory, and identity.” For the past several years, I have been thinking and reading about the centrality and pervasiveness of war. How we have, in the U.S., been at war almost continuously since our founding; how war is remembered in public discourse, and how it is our legacy.
All wars are fought twice, Nguyen reminds us – on the battlefield and then in public memory. Nguyen is writing specifically about the Vietnam War, and begins with observation that for most Americans, the country means the war, the country is the war. To say “Vietnam,” is to conjure the war, and the lasting effects it has had on the identities of both countries. In this book, composed of three sections – Ethics, Industries, and Aesthetics – Nguyen calls for a “just memory” of the Vietnam War, and by extension, all wars. A just memory of war requires a narrative that includes more than combat, that examines the inextricability of war from the domestic life of the nations involved, and that includes the “memories of my war’s dramatis personae, men and women, young and old, soldiers and civilians, majorities and minorities, and winners and losers, as well as many of those who would fall in between the binaries, the oppositions, and the categories.”
I have only just begun reading this book, but it feels very much like the book I have been waiting for. Required reading for a nation in perpetual war.
If They Come for Us by Fatimah Asghar (One World, 2018)
These poems have been described elsewhere as “historically aware,” and that seems an apt phrase to describe the kind of writing and thinking that I have been wanting most these days. I desire the keen recognition that we write and think into a context that bears history’s stain.
At the center of an orphan’s narrative are questions of lineage and legacy. Orphans inhabit these poems, as do concerns about what we inherit, what is passed on. These poems are preoccupied with family connections and with the legacy of violence. From “For Peshawar:” “My uncle gifts me his earliest memory: / a parking lot full of corpses” and from “Partition:”
I pluck my ancestors eyes
from their faces
& fasten them to mine.
Asghar’s poems traverse this terrain with sophistication, complexity, and formal inventiveness. Consider the following: A poem about child abuse written as the floor plan of a home. A poem about the 1947 Partition of India written as mad-lib. About the confusion and alienation of orphaned childhood written as a crossword puzzle. I’m hooked.
The Arrangements by Kate Colby (Four Way Books, 2018)
Kate Colby is a poet of great restraint, great elegance, and great attentiveness. These qualities all shimmer through her latest collection. Each poem is composed of the sparest couplets, which manage, even in their brevity and precision, to raise the most expansive questions of existence. From “Strand:”
I’m of two minds about
bodies. Within or with-
out you, what needs
to be there before you
can see it – searing sun
spots on the back of my
hand, the one I know so
well, next to nothing.
There are many kinds of histories to write into, and many of these poems concern the natural world, the landscape, seasons, and the passage of time. In Colby’s poems, I am made aware of how natural elements – light, snow, clouds – all mark time. “Poem” begins: “This is a poem about a time of day / when the light still seems to mean it,” and later: “This is a poem about a time of life / when one lets go all at once / of regrets, since their sources / are remote and one no longer / does anything worth regretting.”
The End of Peril, the End of Enmity, the End of Strife, a Haven by Thirii Myo Kyaw Myint (Noemi Press, 2018)
I heard Thirri read from this book recently and bought it immediately. This is one of the passages she read:
There was a dark room my mother locked me in when I deserved it. Time did not enter the room. I had no name in there and no body. It was so dark, I could not see my own hands, only a line of light at the bottom of the door. I watched that light though I had no eyes, though my eyes too had been erased.
I died in that room several times. It is crowded with my ghosts.
I have just started reading this novel. It begins with an absence: “The woods are gone now. A quiet lingers where they used to be, as if a weight had been held there, between the trees.” I am entranced by this language, these sentences, these rhythms. I am happy to follow this voice wherever it leads.
Feminaissance, edited by Christine Wertheim (Les Figues Press, 2010)
Last winter I facilitated a reading group at the Providence Athenaeum, where we read and discussed “experimental” women writers who worked across and through genres (Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Anne Carson, Maggie Nelson, Bhanu Kapil, Claudia Rankine, Harryette Mullen). I ran into one of the participants at a coffee shop and she asked me whether I had heard of this collection she had just found and I had not. She described it – the way the pages are laid out, with essays running along the top and bottom of the page, so that they accompany each other, are in conversation with each other, on the page itself – and mentioned some of the contributors: Chris Kraus, Tracie Morris, Bhanu Kapil, Maggie Nelson – and what else could I do but to leave the coffee shop at once to track down this book.
It’s a richly dense assemblage of voices that began, according to the book’s foreword, at a 2007 Cal Arts conference called Feminaissance: a colloquium on women, writing, experiments, and feminism. Running along the top of each page is an abbreviated version of a research paper, entitled “Numbers Trouble,” first delivered at the conference by Juliana Spahr and Stephanie Young, which among many things, responds to the claim that gender parity has been reached in publishing today. Spoiler: It has not.
Composed of critical essays, poems and creative prose, research, and hybrids of all sorts, Feminaissance grapples with questions of feminism, writing, experimentation, aesthetics, and representation in relation to women’s work.