This post originally appeared in Bryant Park Blog
On Tuesday, February 18th, three poets representing the Kundiman literary foundation appeared to read at Kinokuniya bookstore across from Bryant Park. April Naoko Heck, Purvi Shah, and Ocean Vuong shared a wealth of exciting new material. The event was organized by Paul Romero, the Bryant Park Reading Room staff, and Kundiman co-founder Joseph Legaspi, a generous spirit and no mean poet himself.
Kundiman’s mission is to help Asian-American poetry thrive. Over the last number of years I have been deeply impressed with the output of its authors, both on the page and in performance. These are poets whose work is rich with vibrant true stories. Their intellectual engagement is far broader than the mainstream of American poets- who, sadly, tend to take their own cultural ephemera as gospel. These poets do not have that luxury, and their literary lives are better for it.
April Naoko Heck began the reading with poems from her first book, “A Nuclear Family.” From the outset it was clear that this title is more literal than figurative- and that Heck makes little distinction between the two. She grew up in a Japanese-American “nuclear” family and embraces this experience- but also looks back across the generations. In this quest she seems more drawn to the sober pathos of Japanese poets than to the giddy verbosity of American ones.
Heck’s great-grandmother was a survivor of the Hiroshima bombing, and her opening poem was a movingly simple rendition of that story. On that day the Emperor demanded volunteers from nearby Otake, where her family lived. “Is ‘volunteers’ in quotation marks?” the poem asks, speaking of coercion like a green brushstroke speaks of a leaf. After hemming and hawing from the rest of the family, the elder decides to go to the city herself. Heck’s grandmother stays behind with her mother in the womb. Later, the elder describes the bomb blast with onomatopoeia: “kira kira”- she says. “twinkle twinkle.”
Heck is fascinated by such juxtapositions of life and death, tenderness and violence. Her second poem of the evening continued her family’s story many years later. Now nuclear power has become a good thing: her father is working in Ohio’s Perry Nuclear Power Plant to support the family. But loss, for Heck, is never far off, and this poem deals with his sudden death. Heck burst into tears as she delivered the line: “Your dad- aneurysm- go home.” For her, “there’s always a cloud on the horizon, whether it’s figurative or literal.”
But by that same token, everyone is under some cloud- and so empathy comes naturally. Her last poem told the story of her encounter with an innkeeper some time later. She stayed in “a house turned guest house” by a death in the innkeeper’s family. As they grieve together, doors start to open. Once again, the image is both emotional and physical: her poems remember the doors blown off in Hiroshima as well as the guest house doors opening many years later.
Then Purvi Shah got up to read from her first book, Terrain Tracks. In contrast to Heck’s delicate appearance and spare aesthetics, Shah seemed explosive. With a broad smile, an easy laugh, and a shimmering gold top, she warmed up the audience like a stand-up comic. Then came a tremulously sincere love poem: “We bumble through our lives, ” she mused, while “the world swarms.”
From there she zoomed out to focus on that teeming swarm. Her next poem focused on historical hypocrisy, drawing a a parallel between Asian immigrants building America’s railroads in the 1890s and the Illegal Immigrant Act of the 1990s. The musical cadences of her “locomotive night” put me in mind of Kerouac’s “railroad earth”. Although their political agendas would be diametrically opposed, both can speak some real jazz.
The music intensified with her third poem, an ensemble piece for 9 voices. It recalls an immigrant’s rights rally featuring a 22-day hunger strike, and most of the text is drawn verbatim from protesters. “We demand more promise of our immigrants than of our citizens,” a protester says. According to the poet, “promise itself is a migration.” Meanings are always moving in her poems as the context shifts.
Shah plays the trickster well, and fittingly enough her next piece was a devotional poem for Maya, the Indian goddess of illusion. She could have been writing her own womanifesto with her invocations to “drink shade” and “manifest change.” Then a parody of a Dickinson poem ended the night. “I felt this might add to that catastrophic sense,” she quipped. My sense of lyric play was heightened by her reading, and I couldn’t resist a quip myself: Shah puts the “strophe” in “catastrophe”.
Certain poets- especially the ones called “great” while still alive- have a presence like a black hole. There is an inner turmoil, a gravity of manner, which draws audiences in. So it is with Ocean Vuong. When the slight and soft-spoken poet up to read, an air of reverence fell over the room as if we had entered a cathedral. Vuong’s voice came like solemn vespers after Shah’s bright-eyed sermonizing. He had won us over before the first words were spoken.
The first poem mixed scenes from the 1975 fall of Saigon with lyrics from Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas.” At the time, the Americans played the song on South Vietnamese radio as a coded message for evacuation. For Vuong, whose family was later relocated to Connecticut, this means that his memory of the event now includes a snowfall in the tropics. Vuong’s reading happened at a carefully measured pace, getting incredible mileage out of the simplest of words. His syllables were heavy and his sentence fragments hung in the air. The approach worked well for his emotionally loaded subject matter. Other sounds crept in between lines of the song: “children shrieking”, “gunfire”, “a nun on fire run[ning] silently towards her God”.
It seems inevitable to me that redemption is a major theme for Vuong, whose life in America is so tied to our political, military- and yes, spiritual- failings. I can only imagine all the faces that have looked to him with awe, pleading for some kind of forgiveness. The so-called Salvation Army brought his family here from Vietnam. What can a poet do with such martyrdom foisted upon him?
I think the answer will be: quite a lot. Vuong’s heart is in the right place. He is diligently working in the service of his own sanity rather than advancing an agenda or seeking undue fame. “My greatest accolade,” one of his next poems said, “was to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge and not think of flight.” Many refugees struggle to find the numinous in their experience; few find the courage to accept that no search is necessary. Vuong is already “learn[ing] to praise” rather than agonize.