In Afterland*, her first collection, Hmong-American poet Mai Der Vang summons the specters of the Secret War in Laos and the resulting exodus of Hmong refugees (including members of her family). Afterland is a beautiful and painful memorial to the trauma of war and exile.
In many of these poems, short lines offer a sense of fracture and fragmentation, compelling the reader forward into often horrifying imagery, as in “Tilting Our Tears on a Pendulum of Salt” (apologies for the formatting that doesn’t transfer here):
Let us make
Our separate ways,
Until we meet
Our body’s dusty gallery,
Hollow-eyed, until we’ve
Passed the troops
Who have set our forest table
I was also particularly struck by poems about language, like “Original Bones” and “Mother of People without Script” (Paj is not pam is not pab. / Blossom is not blanket is not help. — you can listen to the poem here), and by the way Ms. Vang uses language about writing in other poems (“I have heard the flames / hunting inside your glossary”).
Ms. Vang describes with terrible exactness the visceral horror of war and the despair of defeat and abandonment (“The leftovers ever still waking / Inside the smoke of a hole”), but just as impressive is her tender elegy “Your Mountain Lies Down With You”:
Here, rest not by the lotus of your old country but with
carpenterias and fiddlenecks of spring.
These woodlands may be unfamiliar, their sequoias thicker
than bamboo, and the rains unable to assemble monsoons.
Still, look out to the distance from where you lie.
You will see Mt. Whitney is as beautiful as Phou Bia.
The moon is sharp enough to cut your ear as the one from your village.
Afterland is an impressive collection, a luminous portrayal of loss and survival, and filled to the brim with blistering imagery. Highly recommended.
*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review consideration, which did not affect the content of my review.