Nightboat Books, 2016
REVIEWED BY LESLIE CATON
Body, earth, family, global politics, and God pushed thoughtfully through a meat grinder with memory and sex blades: this is the work inside The Old Philospher, winner of the 2014 Nightbooks Prize for Poetry, by Vi Khi Nao. Before I go on, I need to admit I’m not usually a poetry reader–I’m unsettled when I don’t have confident answers to the question what’s this about? The poetry I gravitate toward is concrete and essayistic, like Mary Ruefle’s “The Bench.” Khi Nao’s previous work, including her novella Swans in Half Mourning, retains a consistency in form that anchors readers and makes space for the imaginative. Philosopher, although packaged in a poetry casing, is anything but consistent. It reads like essay, fiction, or poetry by turns, but provocative images and themes pull even a reluctant reader from challenging poem to story to lyric essay and everything in between.
The book begins with a brief poetic meditation on identity and gender in “dear god I am god” then moves deeper into nature and the uncertainty of prayer as the sun is god as “a child / who pretends to pray” in “Fog,” then into the mind of rock itself as a fatalistic chunk of limestone with a working-class vernacular–“See ya around, pancake faces”–prepares to be turned into a retaining wall in “AA Meeting for A Limestone.” Though the subjects of these poems are dissimilar, thematic threads pull them together: in “dear god” the narrator is washing herself “in dew;” in “Fog,” god is a “daffodil twirling in dew;” in “AA Meeting” the limestone laments his last day “being drunk sitting by the river.” Water lets these unlike pieces flow; in the first two poems we dip our toes, by the third we are drenched, convinced we should suspend our disbelief and just read.
Language is cut and combined in startling ways, mixed into new forms as each piece builds on the next. Nao mixes all kinds of innovation from the literary charcuterie: experimenting with space, punctuation, narrative voice, line, meter; even prose that reads like short-short stories. While this kind of sometimes-jarring motion from one form to another could feel contrived, Nao deftly uses these stylistic leaps to keep the reader off-balance. She leaves a hand on our shoulder, though, by repeating and recombining themes and images: the concrete of body and earth, the uncertainty of memory and God, biblical stories as vivid as our own histories, dark human moments feeding the political, and the grounding pull of sex. This echoing is necessary to steady the reader as form, content, voice–almost everything–shift through the book.
The importance of the thematic and linguistic through-line is demonstrated in the move from “Biblical Flesh,” a three-page block of poetic prose about the betrayed lover to “Hay Bale & Asphalt,” one page of poetry spaced carefully from margin to margin about love or a woman being run over by a policeman outside a restroom (for me, an uncomfortable ambiguity):
and wait for your 3rd lover to arrive and read you back
the torturous verses concealed in packages of salt inside you Then you turn
to Lot’s wife and ask, “Was the view worth it? Is it still gorgeous?”
She is grass, legume, fodder drifting beneath the field of
The man is a mixture of
(“Hay Bale & Asphalt”)
Body and elemental earth exist in a liminal space in these poems, demanding that we consider what else is similar, what else transcends potentially imagined boundaries. As recurrence of theme, image, and language carries from piece to piece, a sense of continuity develops, earning the reader’s trust. And this trust is absolutely necessary by the time we get to “Pastoral Threshold,” where we are thrust into a supernatural political short-short story narrated by a leader of the United Arab Emirates in a modern take on the biblical story of Uriah the Hittite. The casual, patriarchal malevolence in this poem is stirring; after the narrator explains how he sent Uriah to Syria as a UN Inspector to die and to take his wife, the ruler tells us, “Days after his death or rather his assassination, she was squirming in my arms, under the opulent bed sheets of the Emirates Palace in Abu Dhabi where I housed my lust.” While this prose poem (or short-short) could easily stand on its own, as with the other disparate works in this book readers must trust Nao’s sure hand and take the time to reorient with each piece or be lost to confusion.
Nowhere do readers’ efforts pay off more richly than when Nao takes slices from her memory and shapes them with image, combining elements of previous poems that become revelatory. In “My Socialist Saliva,” the political is pressed into the personal through Nao’s childhood in Vietnam. Again the borders between nature and the physical is questioned. On the back of her mother’s motorcycle, breathing the “aromatic rain of rambutan and coffee beans,” she tells us:
My mother rode me on land coated with rambutans
Rambutans were like little ball hearts growing red hair
The earth of Long Khann was swollen with such cardiovascular beauties
My little heart was a little engine
Of red earth–the streets of my childhood were walking to & fro
And then the violence of the Viet Cong carves into the narrative, surreally introducing the political into the body:
My grandmother’s body, a helicopter
ran through her in Saigon
Its heliocentric blades cutting through her skin & bleeding crimson fence wires
That demarcated the pastoral field of her elbow from the suburb of her bicep
The chopping up of convention, the blurring of form and genre, and the haunting resurgence of the deepest common themes resonate through this work. Like the way Nao grinds up poetic tradition, she butchers expectation to make something delicious. She makes us work, makes us think. I can’t say what, exactly, this book is about. But it reads like life often feels: confusing until we take the time to breathe and let meaning coalesce from the strangest places.
Leslie Caton is a freelance writer and essayist. Her essays have been named Notable in The Best American Essays and finalist for the Norman Mailer Two-Year Non-Fiction Prize.