Afterland, the fractured, jagged-toothed debut of American poet Mai Der Vang, was selected by judge Carolyn Forché as the 2016 winner of the Walt Whitman Award, the Academy of American Poets’s first-book prize. Like Forché’s work, Vang’s poems draw energy from the robust American tradition of the poetry of witness, using the power of the lyric to take a stand against forgetting. Born in California in 1981 to refugee parents of Hmong ethnicity who fled Laos in the wake of the Vietnam-American War, Vang specifically strives to bear witness to the hardships endured by her family and other Hmong as a result of the war, and to memorialize the complicity of US foreign policy in those hardships.
Vang uses visceral language to conjure the bodily horrors of the war whose memory so many people of Southeast Asian descent now carry in their bloodstreams: “They sliced off / and boiled his tongue, // forced it down your throat,” she narrates in the collection’s opening poem, “Dear Soldier of the Secret War,” and in “Tilting Our Tears on a Pendulum of Salt,” her language is almost medically blunt when it describes “the troops / Who have set our forest table / With tracheas.” This stomach-turning cannibalistic imagery contrasts sharply with the mouthwatering creature comforts the starving Hmong soldiers knew their American counterparts enjoyed after US. forces withdrew from Southeast Asia, effectively abandoning many Hmong to their deaths:
Do you think of the American returning
to the coffee cup,
in a warm bed,
pulling into the driveway.
Sorry about your mountains,
they say …
Do you picture him reading
the morning paper,
turning on the nightly news…
This passage oscillates disorientingly between objects of large and small scale, the image of the homeward bound American balanced by the image of a coffee cup that looms, huge and hallucinatory, in the mind of the traumatized and dying Hmong soldier. The apology “Sorry about your mountains” feels woefully inadequate, the word “mountains” dwarfing the word “Sorry” to an almost ludicrous extent.
Vang does not dwell long on the cannibalistic imagery she summons; her goal is not simply to shock, but to help the reader understand and empathize with the Hmong’s unthinkably brutal experiences. Still, the reader cannot help but feel a little queasy any time Vang mentions mouths or teeth later in the collection, as when, in a harvest-themed poem much later on, she limns this image, at once lovely and anxiety-provoking:
A star flashes
As if it needs help.
Other times it is a loose tooth
In the open mouth of the galaxy…
There is beauty sprinkled throughout this collection, as in the poems of romantic love spread across the book’s second and third sections, but this beauty is always undercut by the possibility of terror. An example is the poem “Ambush,” which describes a man cleaning the home he shares with his female partner. The poem’s description of housecleaning begins innocently enough: “Below the sofa, a faded receipt / From dinner on Valentine’s, / A dusty Post-it that won’t unfold…” This lulling veneer of innocence is splintered in the poem’s final lines when the man’s carpet-cleaning exposes a “snout / Piercing through spiked rug, / Built jaws ready to pounce.” Once again, teeth make a jarring surprise appearance, mingling love and fear in a way that underscores Vang’s claim, in “Hearts Swathing in Late Summer,” that there is a “kind of light that can only / Be found in the dark.”
Precariousness is an essential condition of life for the people who populate Vang’s poems, especially the Hmong refugees on whom the poet’s eye most lovingly lingers. Vang portrays the refugee by turns as an unmoored wanderer, “slipping windward / Without a bridge to home,” and as a guilt-plagued survivor, haunted by the “keening voices” of “the clattering deceased.” The environment in which the refugee finds herself transplanted is hostile at times, an unwelcoming tableau of “dirt floor / alleys” and “frigid leaves.” In spite of all this, the refugee, sustained by the spiritual and artisanal traditions of her ancestral people, is tasked with using the power of the lyric to build “temples / So rooted, so stone, we won’t ever die out.” Her burden is to be, like the tapestries the Hmong wove before the invention of written language, a repository of memory, to sing out what should not—cannot—be suppressed.
The sufferings of the Hmong were compounded for some time by the refusal of US government to acknowledge their existence: “This is the phantom attack / that never happened, but our fallen know it did.” The dissonance between what exists and what is acknowledged, what is known and what is spoken, is a driving tension underlying Vang’s poems: “Cry, but do not weep,” says the refugee speaker of one poem, a paradoxical instruction echoed when a later poem’s speaker charges, “Go on living, but never say / the names of the dead.”
In “Toward Home,” the speaker reflects, “I don’t know / Where I’m from, but say my feet // Endure because I must have / Come from somewhere.” A refugee, by definition, has been cut off from her roots, and yet her roots must still endure, somewhere. Similarly, Vang’s poetic predecessors must exist, somewhere, though the lineage may not be simple to trace. When the speaker of “Last Body” declares, “I’m moving on / To what the world needs me to know,” readers are reminded simultaneously of Theodore Roethke’s “I learn by going where I have to go” and Mark Strand’s “I move to keep things whole.” When the same poem’s speaker goes on to describe herself as “the exit wound trapped inside the angel,” readers are put in mind of the verbal violences of Ocean Vuong’s Night Sky with Exit Wounds. And while Vang’s poem titled “Days of ‘87” undoubtedly alludes to Constantin Cavafy’s “Days of 1903,” etc., might it also reference Mark Doty’s masterpiece “Days of 1981”?
Mai Der Vang’s glitteringly fragmented, endlessly ramifying verse in Afterland does not yield easy answers, but its depiction of history as a gaping mouth whose exhalations condense on the undersurface of the floor of the present moment is a chilling and necessary lesson for our times.
Author photograph © Ze Moua.