BY ALLY FINDLEY
In the epigraph of his 2018 collection Not Here, Hieu Minh Nguyen quotes Jason Shinder: “Let me keep on describing things to be sure they happened.” This, I think, is the most salient description of what this book attempts in its seventy-three pages. Throughout, we get the sense that we are witnessing a process of solidification, of personal reflection but also personal verification, as the collection refracts the same instances and figures in the author’s life to resolve them into a clearer overall image. This evolves throughout the text cyclically, the collection not sectioned into themes but returning to characters we come to know throughout the book, at different critical moments in their lives and at their intersections with the poet.
In the opening poem, “White Boy Time Machine: Instruction Manual,” Nguyen writes:
I guess I’m trying to explain what’s happening
Nguyen digs his heels into the American Midwest, the place where he grew up, determined to achieve some sort of understanding of this formative place, its people, the memories grounded there. Though not always sure what he will find, or certain he will know how to confront it when it comes, Nguyen goes to meet his ghosts.
Throughout the collection, there are a couple of overtly linked progressions, the most distinct of which is the “White Boy Time Machine” series. This cycle begins with “White Boy Time Machine: Instruction Manual,” which is the first poem in the collection, and it continues, spaced at regular intervals, throughout the entirety of the collection. These poems set themselves the daunting task of dissecting the speaker’s relationships with white men. These interactions display the many ways that the weight of history is brought to bear on the intimate ways we relate as individuals.
The first poem invokes, with the air of a far-off, mythical land:
In the beginning there was corn, a whole state
of boys blond as the plants surrounding them.
And as the series continues, The White Boy becomes a mythical figure, one who represents something larger than his dopey grin and corn blond hair. He is a figure of ignorance and of desire, picked apart and examined here, but the product of a life that has not required him to do much examination himself. He is the self-defined Default of the American Midwest, that blunt force of uncritical existence that crashes against the tortured self-dissection of these poems (“oh, but why am I here?” Nguyen writes).
The series as a whole is spaced so that you dip in and out of them as you read, each time performing a process he describes as “climbing inside a boy & crawling / out into yesterday’s light.” The White Boy Time Machine poems examine a more instinctive and difficult to parse, but visceral, discomfort. Being with white boys makes the speaker feel a sense of near betrayal, or renunciation of his Vietnamese heritage, and throughout, this disconnect is emphasized by wide indents, structured almost in the manner of call and response (“i bit his lip” “spat back my grandmothers bones”). Each poem overlays a depiction of romantic and/or sexual relationships with white boys with the raw (and often violent) historical implications of their often flippant remarks. “But where are you really from?” his boyfriend’s parents ask. Nguyen muses, “Yesterday is the wrong answer, tomorrow too.” Nguyen examines the needles social ease (so often requested of people of color in white-majority social contexts) demands you swallow.
In “White Boy Time Machine: Software,” the second poem in this series, he describes a meet-the-parents situation with an underlying grimness:“the machine reassures me that i have nothing / to prove / i am who they think i am / i lace the corset, tight / blend a decimated village into the hollows / of my cheeks / a dirt burlesque.”
What his white boyfriend and his parents might see as avoiding controversial topics, or not belaboring historical issues that can bear no resolution at the kitchen table, is to the narrator a violent act of renunciation. To see this as a trivial sacrifice for social convenience is a privilege, and privilege a sharp blade wielded clumsily.
This series of poems forcefully captures the way it can chip away at you, having to explain compassion into people, and ignorance out of them, and how, even if in the end your pain is acknowledged, the distance that remains renders it ultimately and inevitably unsatisfying. The exhaustion caused by people will not see their contradictions—their transgressions, feel the weight of history for themselves without your insistences on your own behalf—is palpable. And as this exhaustion builds, eventually you give up (and “blend a decimated village into the hollows / of [your] cheeks”), with the added sting of your boyfriend and his family deeming this interaction a social success.
Throughout the collection, Nguyen’s command of language brings these realizations about in a way that is irrefutable: the situations are recognizable, the dialogue familiar, the images spliced together imprinted on our history. Each enjambment draws a new connection and makes clear Nguyen’s tight control of the line. Again and again, he slowly drops you then catches you, from one revelatory juxtaposition to the next.
This collection meditates on the aesthetics of power and privilege, personified by the blue-eyed boys of the American Midwest. One of the most fascinating examples for this is his mother’s response to her son’s relationships with men. When she first discovers her son is queer, she reacts strongly, but in a way we realize later is borne from concerns for her son’s safety. Interestingly, what seems to be years after his initial coming out, “made curious by loneliness,” his mother asks him about his current boyfriend and learns that this boyfriend is white:
It was simple before: I could not love him.
But now –
he will keep you safe.
& suddenly, the logic is gone.
I’m given the simple conditions
to my mother’s compromise.
His mother’s perspective depends on a kind of cultural capital, which can contribute to or detract from a sense of relative safety. This question of safety is not urgent or bodily to these White Boys, but it is physical and tangible to the speaker and to his mother, and for this reason she urges him, if he must love men, to love the white men who can keep him relatively safe.
A shallower reading of their relationship would leave out that understanding and the fraught love that lies underneath the fact that this is the one person you know who understands things you can’t explain to anyone else. His relationship with his mother is a big focus in this collection, and he touchingly describes her in the final dedication as “the person [he] understands most in this world.” As he dissects his relationships with men, he does so through the lens of his mother’s processing of his queerness and of how it fits within the paradigm of her own experiences with men. After all, they do share one heartbreak: Nguyen’s father walking out on the two of them, and despite living close by, ignoring them when he runs into them in the supermarket—an estrangement that cannot be attributed to physical distance. This experience seems to tie them together, informing both of their perspectives of what it means to be a man, a lover, a father.
The last stanza of the first “White Boy Time Machine” poem, with the haunting echo of a child’s lullaby, imagines his mother as a girl:
My mother is a girl
A soldier hands her a flower
& my eyes flicker blue
I interpret this excerpt as the poet examining how echoes of his own sexuality might find parallels in an imagined past of his mother’s (who, perhaps, was a young woman in Vietnam at the time of the War, a time in which many young Vietnamese women were preyed upon by white soldiers). The stanza impressionistically touches on his mother’s youth and her relationships with men, the intersection of race and culture with sexuality, and through these lenses trace his mother’s cynicism toward men, and how that is brought to bear on his own relationships. He attempts to understand himself through his mother, writing in “Lessons,” “If I’m anything, I’m a boy inside his mother’s body / Shoveling coal into a screaming red engine.”
Throughout, this collection and its author draw the reader into deeply personal and emotional moments, but always resist full disclosure, full intimacy with the reader. These truths were hard won, and even more difficult to reveal, to share and process visibly on these pages. Nguyen’s reluctant sharing feels like a kept promise to himself not to shy away from the truth, but to remember things, to be sure they happened. It makes the reader more grateful that he did, and it makes his writing feel much more real and immediate for the struggle of telling. His reluctance feels like the same poles of a magnet being forced close together—the force is more powerful that way, but always violently resists a direct touch.
One way to thread this collection together is to look at it as an examination of different means and definitions of inheritance. We encounter, early on, the obvious way of defining Nguyen’s inheritance: his struggles between connection and estrangement from Vietnamese culture, his complicated relationships with his parents. Yet inheritance as a model can be traced into many other pieces of this collection. And perhaps because of the ways in which traditional definitions of inheritance fail to capture his experience, Nguyen feels compelled to institute replacements.
A particularly poignant example of this comes in the poem “Elegy for the First.” At his uncle’s funeral, it dawns on the speaker that the man his mother claims is just his uncle’s “roommate” is also the person “there / in every photograph / of you smiling.” He realizes that this man must have been his uncle’s romantic partner. Though the moment arrives with a tenderness, the revelation’s timing is devastating. Too late, he realizes that he was related to his uncle not just by blood, but by experience—that perhaps his uncle’s experiences could have helped him understand his own. This lineage he acknowledges in the title—“Elegy for the First”—the beginning of a different kind of family line.
This poem is the devastation of a loss experienced only after you realized you had something else to lose, some comfort nearby that you couldn’t know to seize—and in this case, that means the loss of a rare and precious means of understanding and closeness. The depiction of the speaker standing next to the partner at the open casket, in a shared yet very separate loss, is crushing. He writes,
for the right ghosts to walk you
to the end of each season.
This hits at the heart of this poem: the right ghosts. What you are haunted by, but also whose presence you need to stick around awhile to guide you. This collection does seem to be about ghosts, and of picking those right ones, and of how to treat the ones you have, as well as how to exorcize yourself of the ghosts who insist on tormenting you.
In this poem, the “here” of the collection’s title takes on the meaning of the mortal world, the place his uncle left behind.
Uncle, a story before you sleep:
here, a child dressed in dust.
This time you wait for him
before you leave.
The absence is even more sharp for what other inheritances, lineages, the speaker feels lost from, disconnected to. The speaker longs to “& inherit any pulse you might’ve left behind,” catching at this thread as it disappears.
This sense of estrangement from traditional lineage is critical to Nguyen’s writing on queerness. Queer boyhood in particular is the central landscape of this collection—and it contains some of the most elucidating descriptions of the nuances it creates in his relationships, including but not limited to those with childhood friends, first loves, girls for whom he was the “gay best friend” in high school, relationship with parents as you grow older, as they accept you or accept being estranged from you (or any of the shades of gray in between).
In the poem “Nguyen” (one of the collection’s longest, and referring to the poet’s surname), he calls himself “A child of redacted blood.” He describes, briefly, how the use of the name “Nguyen” came about to obscure individual family ties, uniting under a single last name so that others can’t be singled out or endangered, merging their histories into one document, obscuring individual pasts. In describing himself as a “child of redacted blood,” Nguyen refers not only to his own feelings of estrangement from Vietnamese culture, but also to the name itself, as the poem tells of how he fell for another boy with the same last name. He writes that he was willing to
Forfeit my name
if all it has offered is the curse
At the same time, we are given the sense that this name represents cultural identity and/or collective identity, and he would forfeit that for the sake of being true to his individual identity and to pursuing his needs as an individual person. Some loss seems inevitable: “Let me be clear, any love I find will be treason,” he writes. Nguyen offers his renunciation of his family’s past if it comes at the price of a future containing love.
With discussions of inheritance, we are also led to one of inherited emotional wounds. In “Again, Let Me Tell You What I Know About Trust,” Nguyen examines his relationship with his father, humanizing his father’s neglect by reflecting on how his father’s guilt for leaving manifests in reactionary impulse, anger, instead of reconciliatory, healing gestures. Nguyen writes that his father “[carries] guilt the same way he would a bat.” Not able to see through his hurt into a more productive response, the wounds remain unhealed, even if their origin is made clearer. And this means of inheritance makes more sense than a neat resolution: so often guilt is a bat, not a quiet penitence—something that surges up, so large in your throat that it feels as if it must cleared with force.
In “Again, Let Me Explain Again,” one of the longest poems in the collection that is separated out into sections/cycles of its own, he starts with “— perhaps I do want children / for reasons other than to appease my mother.” From here, Nguyen begins an extended hypothetical about parenting that ultimately opens the discussion of how the trauma he has endured could in turn be visited upon any children he ends up raising. This evolves into a discussion of his childhood sexual abuse, describing the abuse as a parasite, entering but then only resurfacing (“hatching” to use his words) far later, though it has been feeding on you all this time, like a sleeper cell of trauma. He writes:
& here I am today, years later, the host
of touch, a boy who lets the spider crawl onto his face
before smacking it dead.
The speaker addresses his fear of fatherhood and of perpetuating the cycle of trauma and even potentially abuse, that he might not realize he would perpetuate until he has the child. In “White Boy Time Machine: Joy Ride” (a title so blunt, darkly sarcastic, and viscerally stomach-turning), he writes as a survivor of sexual abuse: “I want to be a braver kind of meat.” These two poems address the cyclical nature of trauma, its potential to be its own kind of inheritance, and the dark implications of that. We all think that the cycle will stop with us, but what if it doesn’t? What if our nightmares are visited on those we seek to protect? Or rather:
Some spells take years
to cast. Some men
until they eat.
Yet within the collection, there are moments of hope, lampposts on the way through the dark. One of the most touching, “Attending the Party,” captures the importance and refuge of chosen family, while articulating with great tenderness the difficult process of accepting that love when you grapple with a depression that urges you to isolate yourself. He writes,
How lucky I am
to be missed
by those who have run out
of ways to hold me?
& isn’t that what I always wanted?
To keep something perfect
long enough for everyone to notice
when I’m gone.
There are many poems, too, that, while perhaps sad, elegiac even, are undeniably love poems.
“Still, Somehow,” for example, is another ghost poem, but such a tender one. Nguyen speaks across the distance of loss softly and gently—
& because you aren’t here (won’t ever, again, be here)
to cover my mouth, I’ll confess, out loud, my love, so maybe
perhaps, you will hear me & join me, here, where the sun is sweet
against the water & because I love you, I will gut this distance
with nostalgia […]
It’s crushing, and yet it is his way of not just preserving but perpetuating the presence of these people he loves, for one last conversation. There is clarity in this grief—a realization of the full value of what has been lost, and in that clarity, at least, some sense of peace.
Alexander Chee writes of this book, “I’ve been waiting for this book, and if you’ve ever read one of these, you probably have been too—this collection is essential.” For me, that was undeniably true, and the reward of reading and engaging with this book was indescribably rich, nuanced, and textured. There is much to learn here from the way in which Nguyen reckons gently with the ghosts of his past. With luck, we may all find the right ghosts for ourselves.
Ally Findley is currently the Editor at David R. Godine, Publisher in Boston. She holds a B.A. in English from Cornell University.