Commentary

A Late Winter Reading List: Poet Diana Khoi Nguyen Curls Up with Prose

Greetings, poets + persons of poetic constitution. It’s me,¬†Diana Khoi Nguyen.¬†As a peddler + dabbler/dribbler/lover of poetry, and as earthling, I’ve always wondered about what others (like me and not like me) are reading. As much as I hate/guilty-pleasure-love lists (especially lists of poetry ilk), I am constantly starving to find the next life-altering/favorite-book-of-all-time.

Sure, as a poet, I’ve had hundreds of poetry collections recommended to me–and many of these have been especially instrumental to my poet/human-development, but there’s something I discovered within the past 14 months: my brain is wildly stimulated in strange and wondrous ways when I read life-altering fiction and non-fiction.¬†This is where I will admit that I don’t see myself as a well-read person. But I am a lover of books. And I’d like to share with lovers of poetry–some meaningful works of prose that I’ve been reading/read recently. I hope you don’t mind.

photo credit: Diana Khoi Nguyen

My hope is that: I can share a book, author, feelings with you that might lead you also to experience feelings. I hope I’m able to bring some attention to works that no one (or only one person) told me about.

I want to spread some literary seed! Cross-pollination! Too many times have I heard from prose writers that they “don’t know jack-shit about poetry,” etc. Maybe my prose-writer-acquaintances are an unrepresentative sample of the larger pool. I’ll never know. I mean, I don’t know how to write a paragraph, but that’s not stopping my prose from happening right here.

To summarize: I love reading non-fiction and fiction, and I’d love share with you what I’ve been reading.¬†The angle: much of the thinking will revolve primarily around how these books have been beneficial to me as a writer-of-poems.

Okay. Here we go.

This month’s notable corral (in no particular order)***:

A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain by Robert Olen Butler

¬†Goodness, how did I miss this? I mean, the title itself is covetable/steal-worthy for a future poem. This short story collection deeply affected me in a way I haven’t felt in a very long time.

After serving in the Vietnam War as an army linguist (he was 26 at the time), Butler became fluent in the language. 20 years later, Butler visited Vietnamese communities in and around New Orleans, listening to stories/myths of love + loss (the only two categories for all literature as far as I’m concerned).

The result is this collection of ranging voices intricately captured in the tapestry of our human condition. Butler reminds me of the stories I had forgotten I’d heard as a young child amid my own Vietnamese relatives. And you do not need to be Vietnamese or even Asian-American to feel as I did. You just need to be human.

Though the stories are too numerous and magical to be capture in this small space, I’ll not fail in an attempt to provide pithy summaries of several. Instead, I can tell you this: the language is so lush, attentive, and redolent with longing, love, and despair. They are all ghost stories and not. I wanted to write a thousand poems after finishing this book.

One of my favorite sentences: “Something deep inside him was sorting out his life as it was about to end. And this is what frightens me the most. I am afraid that deep down I am built on a much smaller scale than the surface of my mind aspires to.”

If this book were a sweater: It’d be an indigo wool sweater, and upon wearing it, you are immediately steeped in all of these experiences/sensations: that of the indigo leaves as they are processed to extract their brilliant color; that of each muscle of every sheep that felt the shears removing the wool that made up the sweater; that of the myth of the hand that held the shears; that of the hand that washed and spun the wool into fiber; that of the weaver, the dyer.

 

 The Naked Eye by Yoko Tawada

Portrait of a Tongue by Yoko Tawada

¬†I’m not going to lie: I’m very obsessed with Yoko Tawada these days, and the obsession is all the more acute because I can’t seem to find another person who has read her, let alone be obsessed with her. Okay, I semi-lied: I know for a fact that Rivka Galchen endorses Tawada, because that’s how I stumbled across this incredible human being.

After devouring Tawada’s Where Europe Begins, I began my scramble to locate any other translations of her work.

Facts: (1) Tokyo-born Tawada moved to Germany when she was 22, (2) then learned the language, (3) then started writing in German (and continued to write in Japanese), (4) publishing and winning major literature awards in both countries. (5) I can barely write in my own first/native language: English.

What I love about Tawada’s work is that her obsessions pretty much mirror my own. There’s a lot about the body, the awareness of the body as physical manifestation which is obviously such an alien experience. The work is teeming with fantastic declarative sentences, strange/off-the-wall/TMI observations that only a person in a foreign land can make. Tawada is particularly gifted in portraying the sense of an outsider not only to one’s native land, adopted land, but outsider to one’s own species. I consider Tawada as part of my tribe. As should you.

The Naked Eye: each chapter is a title of a Catherine Deneuve film because the unnamed young Vietnamese woman protagonist becomes obsessed with the actor after ending up in Paris (after going to East Berlin to speak at an international youth conference).

¬†Portrait of a Tongue: an experimental translation because there are two columns on every page: one for a translation of Tawada’s work (primarily in German, but sometimes in Japanese), and one for that of the translator’s dialogue with Tawada’s text.

Typical Tawada passage:

¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬† The restaurant seemed strangely familiar. It resembled a government reception hall in Saigon. If it hadn’t been for the absence of food, I’d almost have felt at home. Soon, a large group of Russian tourists sat down, and an air of merriment filled the room.

¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬† The potatoes still didn’t come. Instead of a waiter, a reindeer appeared before me. The reindeer was knitted into the sweater of a young man whose blond hair grew down to his shoulders. “May I join you,” he asked me in Russian with an unusual accent.

¬†If Tawada’s books were a meal: matzo ball soup seasoned with “Flying Lion” brand fish sauce. To those who don’t know about the magic that is this fish sauce, your life has been lusterless. This meal totally happened: I was 22, craving matzo ball soup, decided to make my own–and seasoned the chicken broth with what I season ALL chicken broth with: the magic-maker. The result was spectacular.

 

 Six Myths of Our Time by Marina Warner

Warner is remarkable. She’s British, writes history and criticism, as well as novels and collections of poetry. Most of her criticism focuses on myth, fairy tales, etc. Basically, the human I want to be when I grow up.

In this collection of essays, Warner deftly weaves classical myth with pop culture / current events–all in layman’s terms which she gave as half-hour radio talks on BBC radio! She covers everything from mommy issues+Jurassic Park to “The Making of the Male” (I didn’t know there was a tribe in which boys/men practiced fellatio in accordance with a belief that this was necessary in order to transmit manhood between generations) to the wild child/l’enfant sauvage, to cannibalism, and more.

The essays are funny, smart, disturbing, but most of all: resonant. Accessible, entertaining. Essential reading for anyone who writes.

Another book this one kin to: Mary Jo Bang’s recent translation of Dante’s Inferno, in which she not only translates from Dante, but updates all the metaphors/images/etc. with contemporary references + pop culture (South Park’s Cartman makes an appearance. And many others we know well.)

 

And that’s all I’ve got for this inaugural series. In reading what I’ve written here, it’s funny for me to see some patterns emerging even within this reading list (however unintentional).

¬†Going forward, the number of books included will vary (as my life varies), but the enthusiasm shouldn’t. I hope you discover something meaningful–whether directly, indirectly, or randomly-wholly-separate from this list today.

Over + out,

yours truly.

***I realize in hindsight that there’s only one male writer on this list, but that is a coincidental/meaningless statistic. I’m not interested in equal representation of age/race/gender/nationality/genre in these lists. I’m interested in grabbing every wonderful thing I come across as fast as I can without forgetting/dropping anything.

 A native of California, Diana Khoi Nguyen is working on completing her first manuscript in Lewisburg, PA. She has poems and reviews in or forthcoming in Poetry, Lana Turner, Kenyon Review, West Branch, and elsewhere.www.dianakhoinguyen.com