Winner of The Felix Pollak Prize in Poetry for the University of Wisconsin Press, Come Clean is a double entendre of a title in Joshua Nguyen’s debut poetry collection. The speaker effectively “comes clean” about family; sexuality; and his many inspirations, from Marie Kondo to Mitski, to try to “clean up” aspects of his home and career life in order to arrive at it all clean. As someone raised by a single mother who taught me the value of cleanliness when it comes to my laundry as well as my outlook for personal and professional growth, these themes resonated with me.
In the title poem, a ghazal, which appears halfway through the second section of the book, Nguyen reveals that the previous poems were less than honest. In the opening couplet, he confesses: “I lied, I said Wisconsin, but it was a much colder place, let’s say Washington. / Truth be told, it was next to a river, that led to a dam, that led to a wash.” The varied uses of the word “wash” as the last word of each couplet highlights the layered meaning of Come Clean without feeling too on the nose. In fact, each version of “wash” becomes more and more wiped out as the ghazal progresses: “in a white robe, my boy mouth telling my uncle / the dirty thing that happened to me as he continues to watch.”
Nguyen advances the nuances of what’s “dirty” and what’s “clean” by using the haibun form for the poem “One Night Withstand.” The speaker alternates between yeses and nos and what’s clean and what’s dirty when it comes to the house and when it comes to sex:
No, I don’t think we’re moving too fast. Yes, we can kiss against the wall. Yes, we can foreplay on the—well, let me put a dirty sheet over the bed. No, it’s not like a dirty dirty sheet, like a sheet for sex, a sex sheet some would say, but it’s like a sheet I put over the bed for when I’m dirty. Yes, exactly, so my dirtiness doesn’t contaminate my clean sheets. No, you’re right, I’m ruining the mood.
The sense of anxiety about what’s “dirty” and what’s “clean” during sex is heavily rooted in experiences of sexual trauma during the speaker’s youth. The poem “Bunk Bed” suggests this early on in this collection. Not only does the poem visually look like a bunk bed, but each bunk-like stanza starts with the phrase “The first time.” The first stanza represents an expectation for sex based upon what the speaker learns from his brother and his parents. The second stanza represents the reality of the violence he experiences at the age of thirteen, as well as the lack of empathy from the poetry festival peers who witness it:
Yellow, thirteen-year old self staring at the springs above,
how I envied the emptiness of the bunk bed up high. Her
teammates in the other room, being beautiful & yelling
through the door to get some. Her teammates wanted us to
have a true experience. Told her to crush it, like I was a ripe
jackfruit. Said I’m teaching you how to have game.
The last two lines of the second stanza of “Bunk Bed” are particularly heartbreaking: “The first time I had oral / sex, it sounded nothing like my parents.”
The speaker’s trauma around sex stems not only from his childhood but also from a broader stereotype of Asian men’s sexuality. What I appreciate about Come Clean is that Nguyen complicates the prevailing narrative. Asian men are often portrayed as stereotypically asexual, but they can also be hypersexualized, and the latter is what Nguyen addresses in the poem, “After I Was Mistaken for the Stripper While Delivering Barbeque to an All-White Bachelorette Party,” which reminds me of the energy from his spoken word poetry days in collegiate slams. He writes, “If I had a dollar for every human / wanted to see me naked . . . I would still be paying loans back. ‘Being wanted’ was never / simmered.”
Another poem that amplifies this conversation is “Exhaustion [But Every Time Leela Rose Kisses a Random Asian Man in the Street, a New Stanza Begins & the Amount of Words Between the Boxes Increase by One],” which references YouTuber Leela Rose’s 2017 attempt to refute the stereotype by kissing Asian men in public without their consent.
Nguyen viscerally and, in the most justifiable way, responds, “You should ask every fucking time [ ] every person who looks like me [ ] does not need your expert validation [ ] every person who looks like me [ ] isn’t who we see on tv [ ] instead, we see people like you [ ] in front of people like me [ ]”
Here he argues that proving a point doesn’t justify breaking the rules of consent. Nguyen is saying it’s not important to talk about what white people witness on TV; it’s important to talk about how white people are who we see the most on TV and to make room for Asian people and more people of color. If I had a dollar for every word I have written about BIPOC representation in entertainment media, I still wouldn’t have enough to pay back my student loans and car loans. But just because the topic isn’t valued in the mainstream marketplace, doesn’t make it any less valuable.
I work in professions that are either service oriented in community programming, or are involved in writing, because I want to spend my life in them and am skilled in these areas. I am capable of being paid to support myself working in these jobs too. I could have pursued something “safer,” but like Nguyen’s speaker, I wouldn’t have been content. Nguyen’s writing resonates with me because of how he wants to be honest about his desire to pursue writing without his parents being concerned he won’t have health insurance or security.
Although he was on the path to become a dentist, Nguyen tells his parents he wants to be a writer and has a plan to financially support himself to pursue his dreams through graduate programs; he even paid his parents back for financing his dental education. I would highly recommend listening to the VS Podcast episode from 2019 where Nguyen shares more about this story and how Mitski’s “Dreaming Costs Money My Dear” inspired him to talk to his parents in the first place.
Although the speaker in Come Clean is doing what he wants, this chosen path doesn’t prevent imposter syndrome from settling in occasionally. My favorite poem of the whole collection is “Google Calendar for My Imposter Syndrome,” excerpted below:
Clearly, it is innovative by using the technology at our fingertips as a poetic form. But there is more to the poem. There are titles of each calendar event redolent of the tone of the poem’s title, such as “Call Best Friend & Don’t Let Them See Your Work,” “Organize Your Organizers,” or “Office Hours That You Hope No One Goes To.”
He uses caesuras for the event descriptions:
I Am An Over-Hard Egg
Trying To Pass As Egg-
Whites // My Ears Take
In Compliments As Pity
// Close Friends Are The
Most Biased // They
Only Say Nice Things To
Me Because They Like
Me // Don’t Get Me
Started On Family //
Using the images of “An Over-Hard Egg” in the first part of the caesura provides the reader with the image of a cooked yellow yolk, in sharp contrast to “Egg- / Whites”. Whereas here the color yellow is implied, earlier it appears more explicitly. In the poem “Bunk Bed,” Nguyen uses the color yellow as a racial marker of himself as well as to describe the stain on the blue bunk bed his brother uses in college. In “In Praise of My Threaded Eyebrows,” inspired by Aimee Nezhukumatathil, Nguyen uses the color to describe the “sleek queen/trimming the hedge above [his] nose.” There is an ongoing nuance to what the color yellow signifies as Nguyen complicates what is “clean” when it comes to honesty and identity and what is “dirty” when it comes to metaphorical and literal blemishes.
Nguyen uses both more traditional and invented forms to portray the many dimensions of his anxiety around truth telling throughout the book and sequences them in a compelling way to create tension and surprise. The emotional arc starts with the speaker grieving a grandmother who died and an estranged cousin. The speaker’s father is left alone to clean up after his grandmother while the speaker must clean up the trauma of losing his close connection to his cousin, which includes trying to make sense of who is to blame for the severed relationship. The speaker’s grief compounds, as he loses, for a time, a positive relationship with his body, due to the sexual trauma from his youth and a mainstream culture that continues to harm Asian men. These experiences lead the speaker to feel anxiety in and outside of his body in his romantic and platonic relationships with others. Ultimately, however, as the poems progress, the speaker releases these anxieties as he comes clean about seeking liberation to pursue intimate passions.