Nightboat Poetry Prize Winning debut from Brandon Som
Brandon Som’s The Tribute Horse unearths strange knowledge about the ways migration acts upon and is affected by a body’s language, culture, perception and physical manifestations. Using found text, prose poem and Oulipian narrative, Som constructs a poetry deep in its theoretical rigor, ravishing in its sonic pleasure, and delicate in its formal constructions, drawing from various sources, including Chinese painting, Japanese photography, and narrative of immigrants through Angel Island, including that of his own grandfather.
The Tribute Horse is riotously alliterative and full of assonance. In a line like this from “Seascapes”: “They say in certain shells/ you still hear the sea…” Yau’s observation becomes like fact. We can hear the hiss of the waves through the soft consonant repetition. Irresistibly, the poetic line stows away in the procedural memory—which is the part of our brains that remembers music no matter how old we become.
In the collision of different sounds and cultures — which Som has no doubt experienced his whole life — he recognizes that there is no pure moment to return to, no essential identity to define, and that such ideals are sentimental illusions.
Som renders all of these voices not as self-contained fragments, but as contingent, interdependent clues to the mystery of identity and language. The “debt of sound” Som owes is not only the sound of English, but of translation and misprision, misstatement and error. The individual voices here combine into a chorus of irresolvable music; Som portrays them as patterns amid cacophony. Identity, after all, is who we say we are. And what we say depends upon who’s listening.
The Tribute Horse, Brandon Som’s debut full collection, is a surprising title once you wade into the first few pages of this beautiful mediation on migration, cultural memory, and the great mitigating force of both, language. The title image is almost like a piece of statuary, a trophy or memorial object, and to be sure, this collection does feel like a tribute, but it spends far more time at sea and among the heights of birdsong and other utterances than would seem to warrant that powerfully terrestrial and corporeal image of the horse.
BRANDON SOM is the author of the chapbook Babel’s Moon, winner of the Tupelo Press Snowbound Prize. His poems have appeared in Barrow Street, Indiana Review, Black Warrior Review …