The Volta: Friday Feature

As Long As Trees Last by Hoa Nguyen. Wave Books, 2012.

cover of As Long As Trees Last

Reviewed November 23, 2012 by Alicia Salvadeo.

In “Rage Sonnet,” the second poem of Hoa Nguyen’s As Long As Trees Last, Pound and Olson tell the poet in a dream that “It is / so much harder to be a poet now.”

Is this a subconscious admission of defeat encumbered by the inherited directive to “make it new;” of the difficulty of being heard in an overwhelming global sea of voices, or of being worth hearing? Is this a discouragement, an excuse, a commentary on a fraught present moment (emphasis on the “now”)? This anxiety plagues many young poets, I think, myself included; saying it is “so much harder to be a poet” to some is tantamount to saying It is so much harder to live. But is it harder to live in the twenty-first century? And if it is, how to cope: as poet, as citizen, as human, as animal? Is this dream of poet-giants conversing in Washington D.C.—where Pound was committed to St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in 1946, and where Nguyen grew up after immigrating from Vietnam—a galvanizing wake-up call?

Olson wrote that an American “is a complex of occasions, // themselves a geometry // of spatial nature.” While we can (and ought to) take issue with this equation, put forth in The Maximus Poems, for its summary of the human nexus as an experience bequeathed to Americans, there are few better ways to illustrate the poem population of As Long As Trees Last, composed by a distinctively American poet who is acutely aware of the geography leaning in on the self. Nguyen measures the individual within the bounds of history; here, contemporary mainstream culture and social interactions are grafted onto the body’s surrounding environment. She sees geography as more than the land’s features and contours; her purview encompasses the exchange between nature and its inhabitants, particularly the consequences of human activity:

Here we have high flowers a lilac in the nose

“the Zeroes— taught us— Phosphorus”

and so stripped the leaves to none

“Agent Orange Poem” is just one example of Nguyen’s reckoning with human recklessness, here as it manifested during the Vietnam War in the herbicidal warfare of “Operation Ranch Hand.” We come away from it with this final image of forests and fields ravaged by chemical assault—one that twists its prototype in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73, in which “yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang” as winter approaches—to a permanent nakedness, a death less natural than that which Shakespeare’s speaker anticipates. Furthermore, upon retreating from the image, we find the sonnet’s traditional fourteen lines stripped to an uneven seven, its ending couplet reduced to one desolate line. What Nguyen leaves unsaid, as we realize this irrevocable violence to form—to life—is a paradoxical fire. We can read between these lines an expiring fire akin to that within Shakespeare’s speaker; but we can also read the possibility of new fire from the nothingness after extinction, as Dickinson recalls the ease of a phosphorous match catching flame without heat. The voice of a truly regenerative poetry emerges from “the Zeroes.”

“We doom in nation rooms,” Nguyen writes, placing the ordinary citizen at a sheltered distance from the trauma. What a difference “being outside” of it makes, that our “eyes can see brightly / across great distance” to discern the irreversible aftermath; and yet they remain blind to the process of devastation in the foreground. Perhaps we can shirk off responsibility when the injury is out of our hands, committed by an out-of-touch power structure, or a preceding generation; but Nguyen’s poems collapse the space between these distant, large-scale offenses and our own heedless contributions—however individually minuscule—to the environment’s decline, from the exploitation of land in favor of industry to overpopulation. However, her intention seems not only to recognize what has been lost or damaged; this is not a collection preoccupied with nostalgia for a more golden age. Instead, these poems are alert and rife with forethought. Nguyen poses productive and meaningful alternatives—underlining the individual’s responsibility for herself and for others, as in motherhood—to a tradition of detachment and mass consumption. Here is “Ridiculous Couplets” in its entirety:

Mr & Mr T. Bloody Mary mix

Above the Sierras and near

the most toxic concentration basin

a former buffalo wallow

My soil: alluvial

the fertile  where my mother birthed

The cab driver saying

I should have more children

And me wanting seriously to be

Fifteen people all at once

Empress: watch out to not get pregnant

and your carbon footprint

Despite the book’s grappling with bleak environmental and political forecasts, an ongoing history of warfare, global patriarchal power structures, and personal anxiety over the failure of writing, Nguyen refuses to resign, but instead allows geography—or “earth writing,” from gē (‘earth’) + -graphia (‘writing’) —to take over, to realize the possibility of reparation (“So obvious feather on a heart pen... I mix / these pieces seeing inside & / outside... Maybe have to become that bird / one dropped-wing injury... I think / she’s things out of us”). Birds recur throughout As Long As Trees Last as visible markers of the speaker’s emotional state: an invocation of Dickinson’s hope, as in Nguyen’s almost homiletic “Soul Poem,” but at other times a symbol of hopelessness, as when they testify to ecological decline when “washing up in numbers” or as “bird-kill” along the highway: “It’s the bird-hurt you feel.”

Nguyen opens the collection with an epigraph (“Can you enter the great acorn of light?”) lifted from Pound’s 116th Canto, a poem that includes the poet’s infamous admission: “But the beauty is not the madness / Tho’ my errors and wrecks lie about me. / And I am not a demigod, / I cannot make it cohere.” “I am not dead yet,” writes Nguyen toward her own collection’s beginning, enacting both the poet’s and the planet’s resolution to survive despite the odds; and yet toward the end of the book, the poet is still unsettled, bewildered, on the cusp of what might constitute coherence. Take, for example, the opening of “Cassandra Poem”:

Cursed by a lip lick

Words you say

to portray the to-be-now

They say you cannot be

are named Crazy

The poet might deem his or her work as a failure, but this does not spell the end of poetry’s vital attempt to understand and respond to its surroundings. Cassandra’s curse never convinced her to shut out the world in her own reclusion or suicide. Neither did it convince her to shut up, despite her audience’s doomed misunderstanding or refusal to believe, regardless of the warning signs. What was required then—of the poet, of the citizen, of the human being—is required now, to listen:

Intelligent bee glances buzzing

to say  Let me out  The fake

lights confuse us

confuses the source

Worker bee buzzed my neck

directly me not turning off

lamps fast enough


just open the door

to the sun

I can’t help but again remember Olson and his affirmation of polis, when in “Unused Baby” the wasp whispers that “[t]his place / we are in is a place.” Like Maximus, Nguyen compels us to yield in order to change—both by relenting in our active assaults, passive habits, and tendency to not listen closely enough, and by striving toward a productive and sustainable environment, one that refuses “Past-tense sentences.” That Nguyen is able to do so in the restrained, compact, yet ultimately expansive environment of her short lyrics is both a testament to her power as a poet and a rejoinder of sorts to the decidedly masculine maximalism of those poets whom she honors as forbearers. Over the course of As Long As Trees Last, Nguyen turns what seems to be the near-impossibility of writing poetry “now” into a generative spring. It is harder to be a poet, but only because it is harder to listen over increasing figures of national debt, our endless cars glugging 24/7, and Charlie Sheen on the television screen. It is harder to confront increasingly poisoned air, soils, and waters, accumulating waste, and deepening financial inequality. However, none of this suggests that our deafness and blindness are irreversible: “It’s not a time to run / I wear soft shoes / and it took a long time / to walk here.” The river spirit Io was “changed / into a cow,” pestered to insanity by an insect—recall Socrates’ gadfly in Plato’s Apology, whose purpose was to sting the State, “a steed who is tardy in his motions owing to his very size, and requires to be stirred into life” (tr. Benjamin Jowett)—until she reached a new shore, “and then restored.” Nguyen strikes a balance between an inescapable pessimism and a surprising but necessary optimism, with the possibilities of poetry positioned as a fulcrum.

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Alicia Salvadeo grew up in Staten Island, New York, and in Eastern Pennsylvania. She currently lives in Pittsburgh and writes book reviews for Phantom Limb.