Tunneling through the self

On Hoa Nguyen's 'As Long as Trees Last'

As Long as Trees Last

As Long as Trees Last

Hoa Nguyen

Wave Books 2012, 69 pages, $16, ISBN 978-1-933517-61-2

Living with As Long as Trees Last, Hoa Nguyen’s latest collection of poetry, is akin to living with Charles Olson — his endless exuberance, wide-ranging curiosity, and aesthetic agility, as well as his famous invocation of the body as a tunnel through which one must go to know more truly the self and the world around it. “Down through the workings of [the poet’s] own throat to that place where breath comes from,” he writes in Projective Verse, is the path to becoming “participant in the larger force.”

Living with As Long as Trees Last is also akin to living with John Cage — the attention to silence, to the music of reality, to the harmonies and disharmonies that make a life. I think of the presence evoked by his work, of being present to the world, bringing one’s instruments to the stage of the world and allowing the world to play.

Olson and Cage are present in As Long as Trees Last on every page, egging on Nguyen from behind the stage, giving her the theoretical foundation upon which she builds and builds and builds her own vision, one marked by the harmonies and disharmonies of language, thought, and feeling that she reached down into herself to get. The discordant bells of jagged syntax and juxtaposed imagery ring often in the book, discordant in the way a life is lived with anxiety and ferocity, but these bells that ring discordantly also ring true. They ring true in the way Cage’s work rings those everyday sounds, allowing presence and attunement to the oft-neglected disharmonies of reality, but with Olson’s exuberance and his boundless will to break the self off into pieces of the outside world.

But let me be clear. This is Nguyen’s show. It is her throat readers descend into. It is her voice we hear in these discordant bells. For all its kinship with Olson and Cage, As Long as Trees Last is Nguyen’s tremendous symphony. Living with it these months since its release by Wave Books has been a constant pleasure, one that encourages itself as well as the life of the reader to be one of effulgence and grace.

Indeed, it encourages being in its infinitive form, as eros, as will against a very difficult world to inhabit. But inhabit it, we must. “What it means to be / out of work,” she writes in “I’m Stuck.” And in “Being,” “The cup or bowl said to be / precious stone is really green / glass.” Elsewhere, “This is being” (“For Lisa Camile in Memoriam, April 18, 2010”); there are things to do (“Mash the sea / Evolve love / Keen / Coo,” from “Rain Poem”), things to perceive, sounds to interpret, and voices to utter and re-utter into the fabric of the poem.

The space of the poem, then, becomes a space of living, acted and reenacted, where the poem is inhabited as if one’s life were dependent on it (It is! It is!), and also where voice is heard present to the self as if coming from another, as a unique entity of the act of being within one’s self. In “Being,” she writes, “I molt ‘wrapped / in the hide of a yellow cow’” and in the moment the voice becomes present to itself, as if hearing one’s own voice on an answering-machine, a little off but unmistakable and strange:

The dream hand wrote:

How eyes can see brightly
across great distance

Brightly
Distant

This vision of one’s own hand writing is a kind of inhabitation of the self, an inhabitation-as-poem that becomes a life project, Nguyen’s life project. It is a manner of writing and a path through the world that subverts the nonbeing, bodiless meandering of contemporary life. Indeed, as she writes in “Soul Poem,” “It’s the ‘end of enchantment,’” but this end-as-terminus is never an option. Nguyen’s poems constantly bound toward enchantment growing on the leaves of the Chinaberry that grows within one’s self. If anything, As Long as Trees Last is keyed up, bright-eyed, and against an end of any kind.

In “Being,” she writes, “Being outside the world / needs a ‘spiritual degree,’” but not any sort of certification from academia. On the contrary, this spiritual degree is one of attunement, of a heightened listening that Cage and Olson inspire. Elsewhere, in “Unused Baby,” we mustn’t try to “glue the ripped / paper back to the religious / art”; we must “make a mess of it” because the mess of the human body and soul is where we must go to look outward onto the world with any degree of spirituality, so to speak. Subvert academia and subvert religion, Nguyen seems to say, but have spirit and have art.

As we progress through the book, we encounter these instances of inverted voice and subverted societal conventions, and are enchanted by them as they swirl into a whirlpool that pulls everything into the body of the body of the poem. “The outside is the inside,” she writes in “Hexagram #1 Poem.” And this whirlpool effect rearranges our conception of outside and inside in its wake, hence:

I am in the poem pulling
thistle and like the dream
where drive-by Chinaberries golden

Catch cars in the soundscape
a squawking call too with
Lady Xoc’s shield

These stanzas from “Lady Xoc” perfectly capture this blurred and busted line, the porous skin between outside and inside, culminating in the extraordinary “Words You Should Know,” a poem that proclaims the poem-as-life-project aesthetic in a litany of nouns, verbs, and adjectives drawn from A New True Book: The Choctaw. The poem presents readers with a list, a poem as interplay between the language of the world and the poem’s struggle to make its associations and variances count, make them fill the poem with the difficulty of being alive outside as well as inside the poetic space. For all its exuberance, As Long as Trees Last is not neglectful of difficulty, the struggles that the self faces in attempting to inhabit the world. And yet, even as “Words You Should Know” presents readers with “Poverty” and “Defeated,” there appears “Ravine” and “Vine” and the book’s closing imperative to “Please / just open the door / to the sun” (“Swell”).

These closing lines point us to the poem-as-inhabitation-of-the-world that we have encountered all along in As Long as Trees Last, but with a flourish and a passion that could only come from a poet as committed to Olson’s becoming “participant in the larger force” as Nguyen is. As Nguyen opens herself to the world through the “workings of [her] own throat,” she opens the body of her poems to the outside as a way of fully inhabiting the world and the poetry that connects us to the world. Indeed, if we must “open the door / to the sun,” then we must first realize that “the outside is the inside” and that “the wall is a door” (“Hexagram #1 Poem”).

As Long as Trees Last stands on the other side of this door, and, with the wisdom and aesthetic agility unique to poetry, desperately, ferociously pulls us through.