In stanzas as flippant as they are philosophical, Vi Khi Nao shines light on the seasons of the body, its vastness, and the boundaries between genders. The Old Philosopher is an examination of the space between people, between organs, between tongues. Where does my body, my experience, my love begin––where does yours end?
This drama takes place in an intimate landscape where “the / tongue was like a hammock, rocking the mouth in the / heat, dividing the atmosphere & hemisphere & there / was snow between us.”
With textural language so visceral and delicious that it lodges itself in ligaments and blood vessels, we learn that “The heart is a quiet mountain in the Northern Hemisphere of the Body.” This pulsing reverberates from page to mouth to circulatory system. Each poem left me longing to taste language more deeply, more fully. In a five-page poem titled “My Socialist Saliva,” Nao invokes the connection between bodies across the terrain of generations: “My mother’s hair flipping through the pages of the air / The rubber trees tall and skinny / Whose backs wouldn’t break very easily.” Strength comes in loving, in standing tall, in finding home in the most unexpected of places.
It took me days to recover from soak up the first page of Vi Khi Nao’s The Old Philosopher (Nightboat Books, 2016), especially the line in the first poem “dear god I am god”: “I am am washing myself in dew,” in which we have the visible seam of a shift from identity to action. The next line quickly expands the notion of action to that of performance: “transgender performance art as identity.” Each poem in the collection affirms its protean self, its questions of how we name the world—particularly, gender—and its melding of love and violence, sexuality and god, politics and clothing, or play and discomfort. With so many bold juxtapositions, we readers get a peek at language dressed in layer upon lexical layer seen in such examples as “geopolitical orgasm,” “socialist shirt,” “chronometer garden”—we could say words are dressed in drag wandering across frames of reference —and we awaken to words not adhering to conventional semantics as if they can return to some origin in which “words are merely nudes.”
Nudity, not to mention lovers and orgasms, abounds in this book—and God and the Bible. By the second poem, “Fog,” we learn that “when god prays to himself / using the fog’s opaque cushion / we know god is a child / who pretends to pray.” There is intimacy at play here with a marveling, ambiguous mix of emotions. God pretending to play has a sorrowful tone because it is God who receives prayers yet doesn’t know how to pray, but his pretending also seems joyous as any act of pretending can be in a child’s imaginative play (maybe, to play is to pray). God’s acts and his imagination appear again in the poem “Snow”: “God superimposes his imagination on my primal flesh” and if the speaker is good, the result is “the soul of an / Angel…That looks like snow.” We have the cleansing beauty of the snow up against the dictatorial connotations of “superimposes.” Though God is not named in the poem “One Rib Removed,” God is the one who removes Adam’s rib; Adam speaks while his body starts to collapse and in this dire moment he manages to say “Annihilate the odor of naming,” implying the trap of being named, of being named a gender, “The Human Male.”
Vi Khi Nao, born in Long Khanh, Vietnam in 1979, came to the United States when she was seven years old. In her book, The Old Philosopher, she has given us poems in vigorous experimental language. Reading through the book the first time, there is a feeling of a balanced worldly eye, even as the pervasive indistinctness of mixed and matched images/metaphors leaves a sense of no orientation. By the third reading, the seemingly unmoored fragments begin to come into focus: the book feels like the interlacing of two cultures initiated by the wreckage of the Vietnam War.
The poet uses folkloric-like elements of conversational rhythm and hyperbolic content, even as surface meaning is felicitously gutted. Nao is the mistress of the history she experienced/experiences in its colliding fragments:
Meanwhile, God pulls my grandmother
Out of her cigarette bed.
She is wedged between my first aunt and my second aunt.
He thumps her head against the wooden lid of the well &
Lights my grandmother’s head up.
The poem “The Day God Smokes My Grandmother” combines an outsider’s awareness about the nature of things for all of us despite our culture:
God the chronic smoker likes his cigarettes
Short and stumpy.
God doesn’t like to smoke me.
I smell too much like a conflicting
Mixture of lavender and walleye.
God is a mundane mix of mood and politics.
Nao’s writing makes one feel that anything can be said no matter what fleeting glimpse arises. Her language creation is exhilarating as she condenses strands of many traditional stories together making new narrative out of the old (Today I Lost My Hat):
[ . . . ] The moon dancing, tumbling off the precipice of
the universe. Did Lucifer know that she couldn’t be
touched? Even when she was decadent, mellowed,
indecisive? Even when she fell into the lap of Eden, her
white globular head tossing in the wind of stars, her face
pressing into the bosom of yesterday’s dream?
Her language operates without identifiable rules as if replicating a precarious world and yet the bits, tied together, provide an overview of the power of language by way of compressing time and space, “ . . . that there were a thousand minds / unwinding in the distance & the ozone layer is climbing / the stairs from babylon /or that you could speak vietnamese [ . . . ]” The specificity of “a thousand minds,” “you could speak vietnamese,” as with many of her fragments, is the grit of history’s congested content, the “specific” ismetaphor . . . the world is not tethered to anything in particular.
Biblical references scattered through the poems with the facility of familiarity, Masoretic flesh out of Egypt, the burning bush, Canaan, milk & honey, dogwood tree, Elohist source, etc., are used in an assaultive questioning of “biblical flesh”: “You book one night in the Promised Land of the Israelites and wait for your 3rd lover to arrive and read you back the torturous verses concealed in packages of salt inside you . . . .” Nao’s look at Vietnam and the West yields clarity the center has not held in either place for her: the Viet Cong stole the sewing machines of her mother’s seamstress business and sacked her family’s home long after the war was over. Out of the dislocation of history, she creates her own language forms to negotiate and define the present for herself . . . dealing with the cracks between cultures.
At its worst, experimental poetry can be unartful and careless, obfuscating whatever meaning and pleasure that might dwell in the text. At its best, it can call into question language, form, power—anything it pleases, really, through the act of making what we know of poetry new. Vi Khi Nao’s The Old Philosopher comfortably belongs in the latter category. And her subject? Many—Vietnam, violence, sexuality, love, art. But perhaps the most prominent subject is god. Indeed, there are many allusions to biblical and religious texts and stories in this debut collection. Despite this, however, Nao’s god is neither religious nor spiritual. Instead, her god is an idea, and it is this idea of god and how it could exist in our contemporary moment that she explores.
The title poem situates the readers to Nao’s ontological project. In thirteen lines, Nao paints a scene of birds—“approximately four thousand/two-hundred and forty five” of them—released from the trunks of three cars. As they are freed, one “like an old philosopher/Socrates perhaps” stays behind, “walking back and forth on the gray carpet.” The speakers in this collection’s poems are like this old philosopher, this odd bird, observing this new world, a newly-birded world.
Fiction writer Nao (Swans in Half Mourning), winner of the 2014 Nightboat Poetry Prize, makes her poetry debut with a sexually raw collection that sparkles with unexpected imagery, as if “a conflicting/ Mixture of lavender and walleye.” The book is replete with experiments in narrative lyric, and aside from a handful of shorter pieces, most of the poems tend to be longer and discursive. In “My Socialist Saliva,” Nao wanders through memories of her birthplace in Vietnam, one filled with both violence and staggering beauty. “My mother rode me on land coated with rambutans/ Rambutans were like little ball hearts glowing red hair/ The earth of Long Khanh was swollen with such cardiovascular beauties/ My little heart was a little engine/ Of red earth.” Elsewhere, she pulls deeply from the realm of lust and love, as well as the tension between pain and pleasure in sex: “you knew i/ knew that love was made of dust & light & maybe nails/ where the hammer walked away & then returned.” But it is when Nao moves beyond the erotic and explores the sophisticated landscape of memory, family, and poetic form that her work feels most alive, honest and energetic; in these pieces, it seems, breath “skips a step on the stairs of breathing.”
Reading experimental poetry can feel like driving in a traffic jam: you read one line over and over, trying to “get” it, tentatively proceed to the next line, feel even more like you are drowning in blank confusion, flee back to the previous line, read the two lines together a few times to see if their meaning can perhaps be “unlocked” that way, then go back to reading the first line alone because maybe you got it all wrong the first time; eventually, feeling none the wiser, you look up at the clock and realize a half-hour has passed and you haven’t even reached the third line yet.
Fortunately, Vi Khi Nao’s debut poetry collection The Old Philosopher, though ravishingly experimental, is not like that. Nao’s poems are eminently readable, having a brisk, breezy, informal voice (“See ya around, pancake faces,” the speaker of one poem says slangily) and being widely spaced on the page in a way that invites the eye to partake. Reading her words, you find yourself turning pages at a rapid clip.
There is a worldly, cosmopolitan sensibility at work here: in their use of line, image, and irony, Nao’s poems are reminiscent of modernist French poets like Laforgue and Apollinaire. At times, they also evoke Eastern European surrealists like Novica Tadic, as in the case of the claustrophobic and terrifying dramatic monologue “A Cuban Bay of Pigs,” which begins, “When I first met her, her face was hollowed out, like // a soggy tree carved from the center with a metal // spoon….” The poem goes on to describe how a despot turns a woman’s head into a pinata because “she had the face of history and to me, it seemed, to // get rid of her face was to get rid of history.”
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Body and elemental earth exist in a liminal space in these poems, demanding that we consider what else is similar, what else transcends potentially imagined boundaries. As recurrence of theme, image, and language carries from piece to piece, a sense of continuity develops, earning the reader’s trust. And this trust is absolutely necessary by the time we get to “Pastoral Threshold,” where we are thrust into a supernatural political short-short story narrated by a leader of the United Arab Emirates in a modern take on the biblical story of Uriah the Hittite. The casual, patriarchal malevolence in this poem is stirring; after the narrator explains how he sent Uriah to Syria as a UN Inspector to die and to take his wife, the ruler tells us, “Days after his death or rather his assassination, she was squirming in my arms, under the opulent bed sheets of the Emirates Palace in Abu Dhabi where I housed my lust.” While this prose poem (or short-short) could easily stand on its own, as with the other disparate works in this book readers must trust Nao’s sure hand and take the time to reorient with each piece or be lost to confusion.