Not Here, by Hieu Minh Nguyen
Hieu Minh Nguyen’s second collection, Not Here, is a remarkable work of emotional generosity and alchemic poetic power, not only delving into trauma, isolation, and pain, but also demonstrating how such experiences may be transformed. The book holds more than seems possible, a bracing antidote to the poisonous narrative that marginalized people are too much, with experiences too specific to matter or ever really be universal. Indeed, Nguyen deftly demonstrates the connections between societal and personal violence, what’s done to body and what’s inflicted on the psyche, and how systems of control within relationships echo those of the larger society. Nguyen then takes this raw matter and, through the course of the collection, distills an elixir to nourish and heal.
The collection’s cleverest rhetorical move is that of a “white boy time machine,” highlighting how whiteness and maleness allows the “time machine” to move through time and space in ways impossible for the speaker, as in “White Boy Time Machine: Safety Tips,” where the speaker observes, “let me tell you / the problem / with history / somewhere somewhere someone wants you / gone.” There’s a satisfying reversal here—the white man, for once, is in a position of service, rather than the other way around. Although, of course, it’s a fraught reversal that opens the speaker up to being misunderstood, minimized, or commodified by the “time machine.” As the speaker notes in “White Boy Time Machine: Override,” “No matter where we go, there’s a history / of white men describing a landscape / so they can claim it.”
Nguyen’s speaker is thrown into starkest relief by familial relationships, which provide some of the collection’s most searing, finely wrought poems, such as “Still, Somehow,” where “grief can taste of sugar if you run / your tongue along the right edge.” There’s deep ambivalence in these familial poems, an awareness that despite the many, specific hurts families subject us to, they were our first physical intimates and continue to be keepers of our stories, and are the mirrors by which we see ourselves, as in the astonishing “Changeling”:
I tell my mother she is still beautiful & she laughs. The room fills
with flies. They gather in the shape of a small boy. They lead her
back to the mirror, but my reflection is still there.
Romantic relationships are another fulcrum upon which the collection turns, serving as the site of tensions around race, queerness, and belonging. In “Nguŷen,” the speaker wonders, “& isn’t that how / we’re taught to survive? Hide? Or obediently / follow the path paved by a white man’s desire?” Family is here too, as a foil and complicating factor. In the same poem, the speaker encounters their mother’s unexpected acceptance filtered through her recognition of whiteness’s cloak of protection, “Somewhere between Saigon & Sacramento / she would sing my favorite song / if I just waved / my lover’s white skin / like a flag in surrender.”
Finally, we approach the particular, memory-warping harm of childhood sexual violence. Along with familial relationships, this trauma is what most strongly calls the speaker to time travel, as the speaker explains in “White Boy Time Machine: Joy Ride,” “It is the machine that pulls me / into the old elementary school / by my collar.” That moment perfectly captures the tension between wanting to share traumatic truths and knowing that the very act of telling allows for the possibility of being mis-seen, minimized, or even rejected.
Nguyen deftly demonstrates how childhood trauma seeps into the psyche, inflecting and flattening memory, as in “The Study”: “when I think of that year, no one has a face.” These poems also engage with the body—already a site of othering due to queerness, brownness, and fatness—and articulate the difficulty of claiming the body as a locus of pleasure when harm has entered us through it. Nguyen asks whether we can find ourselves at home in that same body, rather than alienated from it, and if it’s possible to avoid turning society’s warped gaze upon ourselves, as in “Again, Let Me Explain Again,” “here I am, today, years later, the host / of touch, a boy who lets the spider crawl onto his face / before smacking it dead.”
I know I promised a healing elixir at the beginning of this review, and Nguyen’s extraordinarily compassionate lyrical gaze is the crucible in which that elixir comes into being. This is often a painful book, but it’s never cruel. Especially if you’re a reader who occupies multiple sites of marginalization, there’s much that cuts to the bone—gently pressing on bruises you didn’t even know you had—but Nguyen, though unflinching, leaves us with possibility and transformation as articulated in the gorgeous ending of “Still, Somehow,” “I swear, it was there, again / above the tall grass, the headless hawk / still alive, still, somehow, flying.”
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