Recommended Reading: Afterland, by Mai Der Vang

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
With tracheas.

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.

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Last Week’s Reading: April 16-22

A light week, Dear Readers, for the best of reasons: a delightful post-Easter visit from family. Hope you’re all enjoying spring (or autumn, for you Southern Hemisphere folks).

Afterland, by Mai Der Vang: A haunting debut poetry collection; full review to come.

Spaceman of Bohemia, by Jaroslav Kalfar: Like Meg Howrey’s The Wanderers, Spaceman of Bohemia is literary sci-fi that explores questions of surveillance, ambition, and love, but it’s quite a bit weirder and much less invested in realism. In 2018, Czech scientist Jakub becomes his country’s first astronaut, sent into space (in a ship whose components are named after various sponsoring companies) to study a cloud of cosmic dust near Venus. The mission takes Jakub from his beloved wife Lenka, but offers him the opportunity to rise beyond the taint of his Communist informant father’s past. However, lonely days in space  start to feel less like heroism and more like insanity; soon Jakub is conversing with a Nutella-loving giant space spider (Imaginary? Maybe, maybe not) and sharing, almost re-living, his childhood memories of the rural village where his grandparents tried to protect him from the consequences of his father’s sins. Spaceman of Bohemia is an odd and touching debut novel, and I recommend it.

Float, by Anne Carson: I bought Float last fall as a birthday present to myself, but after paging through it, decided to wait for a quiet day to take it all in. That day was Saturday, but I think I’ll need quite a few more before I process the whole thing. Float is a collection of 22 chapbooks that can be read in any order. Poetry, essays, lectures, performances, hybrid forms—they’re all here, in that inimitable Anne Carson style. It was the prose that drew me most this time, especially a gorgeous essay on translation (“Variations on the Right to Remain Silent”) and “Uncle Falling: A Pair of Lyric Lectures with a Shared Chorus.” If you’re an Anne Carson fan, Float is a must-read.