I have yet to read a poetry collection that is more haunting than Do Nguyen Mai’s Ghosts Still Walking. Her poetry is chilling, and forced me to set the collection down on multiple occasions because I was taken aback by all of the weighty material the poems tackled in such a poignant way. Highly influenced by the long and sorrowful history of Vietnam, this collection will send shivers down your spine.
One of my favorite poems in the collections is in the first part of the book. It’s titled “From Phùng Thị Chính to Her Child” and it talks about the suicide of Vietnamese noblewoman Phùng Thị Chính, who was “noted for having given birth on the battlefield and continuing to fight the Chinese invaders with her child strapped to her back” (page 12). It reads: “You, red with your / mother’s own starved blood. // You, born of my dying hearth, / delivered into an apocalypse,” (lines 16-19). I am always so thankful for poetry like Mai’s because it honors the bravery of those who fought during these terrible wars. And you can tell from the very beginning of the collection, which reads, “For my ancestors, who have guided my pen since the beginning, and my family members, who have given me this voice” that this is just what Mai set out to do.
An influential debut collection, the speaker of this book cannot help but feel the harsh consequences of Vietnam’s unsettling history. As a reader, you will share in this experience. In the section “tongues of fire,” the speaker demands readers to “Look at the nothingness we have become. Look at all the emptiness we are now, after you so meticulously tried to carve your civilized speech upon out bones,” (page 40). Even as the collection comes to a close, the speaker acknowledges the importance of remembering these wars and this history despite the pain: “Like clouds, these dreams // Linger,” (“Smoke,” lines 1-2).
If you’re planning on reading this collection, go slow. Mai’s poems pack a lot of punch. They are heavy, but for a good reason. Although the collection is only two sections, Mai breaks these two sections up with a prose poem titled “Tongues of Fire.” What I really enjoyed about this collection is the fact that I haven’t read anything like it before. Mai’s voice is unique, and it you will feel its importance from page to page.
Photo courtesy of Platypus Press.
Buy the collection here.