by Jane Wong | Contributing Writer
Cleveland State University Press, 2018
Nicholas Gulig’s Orient, winner of the 2017 Open Book Poetry Competition at Cleveland State University Press, opens with an epigraph by Lebanese poet Khalil Hawi: “How can we remain beneath a single roof? / When there are seas between us, and walls, deserts of cold ash…” This desire for connection, despite distance, reverberates throughout Orient. Gulig’s collection is all encompassing—all heart, all terror. Religion, conflict, refugees, the desert, violence, noise, silence, politics, daughters, empire, language, fathers, art, music, orientalism, youth, what we look at and what we turn away from—all of it. In these poems, Gulig asks: how can we live in a world filled with war and empire—including language as empire? And can poetry—as an attempt at language—do anything? Moreover, as a Thai American poet, what does it mean to trace one’s own relation to empire—here in the West and the East?
The scope here is significant. Throughout the book, we zoom in and out, and empire is shown to be both deeply personal and collective. Gulig’s poems pose large ethical and metaphysical questions around destruction, beauty, and desire, and images (from friend and archeologist, Ian Wallace) move throughout the book, akin to Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s opening visual image in Dictee. Calling forth the muse in this rubble, Cha writes: “Beginning wherever you wish, tell even us.” Orient echos Dictee‘s beginning, depicting ruins and half-standing places.
In both his first book North of Order (YesYes, 2015) and Orient, Gulig is deeply impacted by landscape and metaphysical questions of the self. George Oppen’s influence, particularly Of Being Numerous, is deeply felt. Gulig reiterates Oppen’s call: “there are things / we live among ‘and to see them / is to know ourselves.’” Yet, I want to suggest other vibrational influences and conversations. I remember encountering Inger Christensen’s alphabet (translated by Susanna Nied) with Gulig as an MFA student at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop back in 2008. From alphabet, Christensen writes: “bracken exists; and blackberries, blackberries; / bromine exists; and hydrogen, hydrogen.” Later in the book, Christensen suggests the close proximity of terror and tenderness: “atom bombs exist” while “love exists, love exists / your hand a baby bird so obliviously tucked / into mine…” This poem asks: how could these parts of our world exist simultaneously?
Reading Orient, I kept coming back to this singular word “exist,” which feels so close to the word “resist.” Gulig plays with Christensen’s assertion in poems such as “Some Cacophonies”: “Empire exists. A person dreams to walk into the wilderness” and later: “we gathered in a room and read / the alphabet together in a circle. Privilege, privilege exists.” In this moment, we must turn inward: whose rights were taken away so that I could have mine? Likewise, I kept coming back to the idea of the conditional. What kind of choices have we made? What kind of ethical boundaries have we crossed? From the opening poem, “An Image of the Books In Which I Hear You,” the use of the conditional “if” is eerily accurate:
…If our languages unspool in blue drifts
against the distance, escaping reticence.
If the distance of our reticence
is false. If it isn’t crossable.
If we cross it anyway.
Who will carry us?”
Migration is constant: “If we cross it anyway.” Here, the question is not if it’s worth the risk, but: “who will carry us?” Who will take care of migrants? Who will ensure this safe crossing and arrival? And aren’t we all implicated in how we treat all migrants? At its core, Orient reminds us of our entangled histories.
The book unravels with long, serial poems. Poems such as “Some Cacophonies” move forth like drifts and waves, a prose poem resembling long threads across multiple pages. This early poem reads almost like a cosmology—a beginning condition. Yet, don’t we know history? What creeps in these beginning relationships: “the crawl of empire.” Each poem brings forth an aphoristic entanglement: “Often terrifying, the noise reverberates against the tiny bones inside the ear and writes them in the image of its occurrence.”
Yet, this book is not abstraction. The terror of the news is real; survival is real. Each day is real. Orient returns to a series of prose poems with a mother and her daughter—both refugees. “When the tanks were called, you hid beside your daughter in the basement. You began to teach her English. ‘You will need this. There will come a day,’ you said, ‘and you will need this.’ In this moment, I couldn’t help but think of Gulig’s own Thai American daughters, of conversations he will have to have with them. Indeed, the personal is tangled with the news. From “The Landscape of the Secular,” he writes: “I was 21 when the towers fell. My aesthetics failed me.” This poem recycles its language and washes back upon itself, later: “My aesthetics failed me.” With a deep sense of the unheimlich, Gulig writes of how war begets future war: “Years later, I remember walking up the stairs and waking. I rubbed my eyes. I looked at the television. The mirror of the river, or a screen.”
Orient’s central poem is “The Book of Origins”—an elegy for Gulig’s father, Art. Even in the midst of all the violence and war that surrounds Orient, this poem—for his father—exists as solid ground. A kind of ethical baseline. I knew Gulig’s father too, and immediately wished he would adopt me as his daughter. He was a reminder that men could be gentle; he believed in loving his children, in asking about their feelings, daily. And don’t we all need some sort of tether to a kind, ethical world in all this madness? Don’t we need someone to urge us to care for others?
“The Book of Origins” calls forth our interwoven personal and political worlds—insisting that they must exist together. This is a poem of loss and grief, but also about war and border building. In one section, Gulig writes: “I sat on the couch. The news washed over me. Quite specifically, I remember the green-bright traces of artillery, the way the night above the desert trembled. I had never seen a war. I wept. I was at a party. It was a birthday party. My father took me home.” How can war, a birthday party, and fatherhood coexist? One cannot look away from everything. As Gulig writes: “I used to think that it was possible to turn away.”
The emotional depth of this poem—and the book as a whole—lies within the love between a son and father, and a father’s belief in kindness. This poem exists, aptly, in the very center of the book. He writes of spreading his father’s ashes, of his gentle ghost:
there, but only
barely, an incandescent
blue, the waves
returning, his scattered form
an old direction
traced, our time together
leaving a certain stillness centered in
our language, leaving.
The beauty of these line breaks is undeniable. These lines sway together; they cradle us in an otherwise terrifying world. Which raises the question: can language make us more gentle? Can language bring us closer to those we love? “The dead do not come back. / I speak to them // and through them. To bring you // closer.” This moment in “The Book of Origins” speaks to later moments in which the speaker writes of his family, of the next generation: “Still, I want to have a daughter. I want for her / a name to be its music, to say beyond the poem / that it has mattered / somehow.” Beyond a poem, language does matter. Language is naming, is being seen. Language is something to hold onto, even in its fraught impossibilities: From the last section of the book, “Denizen”: “Language is a residue. / I cling.”
Orient also reveals what we are afraid to see for ourselves, despite love—that empire itself is sickly alluring. From “Some Pornographies,” Gulig writes of the magnetism of empire and our implication in it:
This morning I would like to thank
the loud republic.
Without a history of domination
I couldn’t be or want
to put my fingers
there, where it, a mouth, is academic, a crevice
stitched together by a dialect,
the alphabet, or drone.
To want to “put my fingers / there.” Shouldn’t we be “ashamed, American”? Here, I am also reminded of Cathy Park Hong’s Engine Empire, which throws us into the domain of empire. The quiet riot of Lao Canadian poet Souvankham Thammavongsa’s Light also comes to mind: “Up there, one contains all light // Kept at a distance, as far away as a lost love, a hope long past, an apology / that changes nothing.”
At its core, Orient asks: what will it take for us to actually see and hear each other amidst all this cacophony and noise? Gulig argues, in verse, that we must look at ourselves fully, in all our nakedness and all our gaudy dress. What privileges do we take advantage of? Look at the very fact of war: “that we are capable / of this. That finally, after everything, we find that we comply.” This is not an easy book. But we must consider what silence builds. We must refuse that steady “crawl of empire.” Gulig’s poetry is one of awareness, of forgiveness, of turning to hold each other—to really hold each other, despite so much distance.
Jane Wong‘s poems can be found in Best American Poetry 2015, American Poetry Review, Third Coast, jubilat and others. A Kundiman fellow, she is the recipient of a Pushcart Prize and fellowships from the U.S. Fulbright Program, the Fine Arts Work Center, Hedgebrook, and Bread Loaf. She is the author of Overpour (Action Books, 2016) and is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Western Washington University.