Ghost Of by Diana Khoi Nguyen
Omnidawn, 2018. pp. 83
Reviewed by Emily Pérez
A death creates both an absence—the hole left by the departed—and a presence—the weight of that hole. Diana Khoi Nguyen’s beautiful debut collection, Ghost Of, finds myriad ways to embody this seeming paradox.
Absence is everywhere. The collection’s title ends on a preposition with no object; the cover image depicts a shadow on a tennis court stretching from an empty pair of shoes. Poems end mid-sentence and mid-word: “it keeps me alive it keeps” and “I am grave am I glad you ar.” The first piece in the collection is itself a ghost, appearing immediately after the table of contents, but untitled and not listed, as if it has slipped in unannounced.
In interviews, Nguyen has told the story of her brother Oliver, prior to his suicide, cutting his image out of family pictures and replacing those prints in their frames. Nguyen uses those pictures for two nonce forms in this book—the “Triptych” and the “Gyotaku” —which juxtapose presence and absence. Each of these forms uses a blur of the actual photograph, sans Oliver, as well as small poems written in the shape of the cut out. The triptychs also include rectangular, picture-shaped poems, with the cut out forming a caesura. Oliver is missing, but he is everywhere.
The cut outs are odd shapes, and against their inevitable edges, Nguyen’s words fracture. One, small poem in the shape of a head and torso, begins: “with e / yes close / d he waits / for his bo / dy to do / the sam / e, a fistful of g / rains, rice let go fr / om the hand of a cy / mbalist; first the rains / torm then trio of cric / kets.” Here, she describes the moment of her brother’s death as beginning quietly—the tap of rice grains on a cymbal—then building into a louder, keener cricket song. Nguyen herself creates music, with the internal rhyme of “waits / same / grain / rain,” yet inside the unexpected shape the words and music fracture. Similarly, in the rectangular poems, the cut-outs create awkward caesuras that Nguyen does not tidy. Rather, even simple words are interrupted: “the” becomes “th e.” Absence imposes itself and cannot be avoided.
Nguyen’s language, like grief, can pierce and pound. In “Family Ties” she juxtaposes her brother’s act of cutting out his image from the photographs with deer killed along a road, rendering the brutality into something beautiful, delicate, cosmic:
And from the road a deer ripened in death and a tuft of fur—or dandelion—
tumbled along gently circled, driftwood, shaking loose, gathered,
dissolving into the mouths of jewelweed nearby
Earth is rife with iron and blood is rich in stardust
Later, in “Ghost Of,” she opts for blunter prose:
Let me tell you a story about seatbelts. While driving her children to the local pool, a mother enumerates to her children their failures. There was a mother, she says, who put her children in a car, sewing their seat belts so they couldn’t unbuckle them, who drove them off a seaside cliff.
The collection’s story is ultimately not just of a sister’s grief, but of a family’s, of broad loss born from the Vietnam war and deep loss born from suicide. The book’s wildly inventive forms show the power struggle anyone who has experienced great loss can understand: the attempt to find a suitable container for mourning, and the acceptance that mourning dictates the shape of everything around it.
Emily Pérez is the author House of Sugar, House of Stone, the chapbook Backyard Migration Route and newly released chapbook Made and Unmade, available from Madhouse Press. A CantoMundo fellow, her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in journals including Copper Nickel, Fairy Tale Review, RHINO, and Poetry. She teaches English and Gender Studies in Denver where she lives with her husband and sons.