May Huang reviews a stunning debut collection of poems.
Hai-Dang Phan, Reenactments: Poems and Translations (Sarabande Books, 2019), 88pp.
To “reenact” is to repeat an event that took place in the past, often through performance. Reenactments, Hai-Dang Phan’s stunning debut collection of poems and translations, is a platform for a series of reenactments that explore the legacy of the Vietnam War. Like a stage production, the poems often blur the boundary between truth and fiction as they retell different versions of the past. The poem that begins the collection, “Small Wars,” starts with a line that may appear harmless when lifted out of context: “it was my turn to play dead.” And yet, over the course of the poem, the speaker’s pretend death begins to feel too real: “black smoke seeped into my eyes and blood rushed to my head.” Throughout the collection, Phan shows how the trauma of violence seeps into everything, especially language. In his poems, otherwise everyday lines, such as “kill time” or “shooting [photos],” feel situated in a wartime context – and context is everything in a collection about reenactment. Even lines that are lyrically lovely, such as Phan’s description of the sea being like “a glitter bomb spilling sequins in the millions,” carry an undertone of violence.
As the son of Vietnamese refugees, Phan writes about his own family’s exodus and the experiences of other displaced individuals, whose stories he incorporates through found material, ekphrasis and frequent allusions to literary texts. A few poems are inspired by photographs taken by An-My Lê, an acclaimed Vietnamese-American photographer whose family fled Saigon in 1975. Another poem, “Video Elegy,” begins by quoting two lines by James Tate – “Your face did not rot / like the others” – to explore how reenactment is not necessarily an antidote for loss. The poem tells of a war hero whose story is “converted / into VHS,” such that his memory is preserved. But the VHS tape also records the man’s death and funeral: “they / got you dozing off / in your red cushioned box… they got you in the ground.” The poem ends ominously: “they got everything.” The idea of “getting something [on camera]” implies preservation and excavation, and hints at how the state and warfare strip away one’s identity.
In another poem that is similarly interested in loss, Phan quotes from the correspondence of Nguyễn Văn Thể, a man searching for his missing granddaughter. Writing to the U.S. Department of State and other international organisations, the speaker says: “it’s true that they ‘took away with them eight girls in our boat,’ but ‘abducted’ captures the situation better.” The line, which Phan unearthed in archives, is both a translation and a revision, a bilingual reenactment of a history that will never be recovered. The poem’s sombre ending confirms this: “no trace of his granddaughter Thùy.” Reenactments demonstrates that the only way in which we can confront the loss and trauma of the past is by thinking of ways in which history can be meaningfully retold and reenacted.
In a particularly memorable poem, English and Vietnamese share the page as Phan describes his father’s experience reading the 1981 edition of The Norton Introduction to Literature. The poem is not explicitly about the war, but Phan nonetheless reminds us that his reading and writing of English is inseparable from the exodus: “1981 was the same year we vượt biển and came to America.” The poem alludes to English-language poetry throughout, just as the life of an immigrant family is always shaped by multiple cultures. “Lunar New Year in Orlando” presents cultural juxtaposition in its title, while “Watching World War Z” compares scenes from the Brad Pitt blockbuster to the Fall of Saigon in 1975. Phan’s translations of contemporary Vietnamese poets are interspersed throughout the collection, as if to remind us that every translation is an original poem – and every original poem is a translation. That is to say, each time language crosses a border, it becomes something new, and any poem that reckons with border crossing is transnational in nature.
One Vietnamese poet whose work appears frequently in the collection is Phan Nhiên Hạo, an exiled poet who now lives in Illinois. His poem, “March in Atlanta,” chronicles his first visit to the United States, where he encountered “manhole covers,” “immature flies” and “cigarette butts.” He does not glorify the country, but instead plainly admits that, “I heard America burp.” The poem makes it clear that both America and Vietnam have experienced pain, filth, and conflict – that each country has its own troubled history to consider and reenact.
Towards the end of the collection, Phan tells us that “Viet Cong” – a “derogatory term for Vietnamese Communists / in the south” – is also “the name of this post-punk band from Calgary.” Doubly ironic, this moment reveals how flippantly the cultural memory of a community can be appropriated. However, Phan’s project reminds us that the poetic process of reenacting, revising, and retelling can be a powerful way to resist forgetting. Exquisitely written, at times darkly humorous, and lyrically beautiful even in its bleakest moments, Reenactments is an impressive debut collection that deserves multiple readings.
May Huang is a translator, poet, and essayist. Born in Taiwan and raised in Hong Kong, she graduated from the University of Chicago and is Social Media Manager for Asymptote. Her work has appeared in Exchanges, InTranslation, Cha, and elsewhere.