Effective instability: A Review of Hoa Nguyen’s Hecate Lochia

diaCRITICS will periodically have guest blogs. Here’s one from Stephen Sohn, professor of English at Stanford University, where he is completing a manuscript on Asian American cultural production. He often reviews Asian American literature at his blog and here he discusses Hoa Nguyen‘s book of poetry, Hecate Lochia, from Hot Whiskey Press.

It is perhaps most relevant to begin reviewing Hoa Nguyen’s ferocious poetry collection, Hecate Lochia, with a brief consideration of the title. With a nod toward the Greek goddess associated with nurturing and childbirth (Hecate) and with a reference to post-partum vaginal discharge (lochia), Hecate Lochia is an extended metaphor about the perils of motherhood in the age of late capitalism and neoliberal philosophy. The word “lochia” is derived from Greek, so in that respect we see these resonances and connotations moving across contexts and cultures. These traveling linguistic significations are part-and-parcel of Nguyen’s larger lyric character, something that can be seen in the arc of her work, especially in her first full length collection and the now radically out-of-print, Your Ancient See Through (2002) from the wonderfully inventive Subpress Collective. Nguyen’s poetry is grounded in a clear ambivalence about the future of the family in such a chaotic landscape, where labor is outsourced to third world countries and with ongoing conflicts occurring throughout the globe. In this manner, Hecate Lochia holds many thematic resonances to Rita Wong’s recently released, Forage. As a way of getting into the content of Nguyen’s collection, I critique two complete poems included in Hecate Lochia that are emblematic of the ways that Nguyen intertwines lyrical meditations on political concerns with the domestic perils of the everyday. In “No One Wants,” Nguyen’s lyric speaker finds herself confronting the commodification of desire and the ubiquity of a money economy:

No one wants to remove
our poison ivy not even for money

I drink out of a jar
“Fermentation is permaculture”
and drive too much—everywhere

“There is no one there there”

Driving a hole
in the ozone layer

Grey transformer box
hulks in the backyard
and we have the 60th anniversary
of the bombing of Hiroshima

White refrigerator on
all day.

The poem opens immediately with the sense of endangered domesticity, where the “poison ivy” cannot be removed. Common to many of the poems throughout the collection is the usage of quotation marks, suggestive of a comment that has been made, but one that cannot ever be fully contextualized or pinpointed to a particular speaker. In “No One Wants,” these quotations serve as dialoguing apparatuses, where a phrase such as “fermentation is permaculture” introduces an environmental politic that clashes against the presence of vehicular transport that is destroying the atmosphere. The concept of the “permaculture” relates to a kind of sustainability based on the perception that there actually is a “natural” and healthy ecological system. The connotations associated with the word, “natural,” have been hotly debated, but with permaculture, the specific teleology is one connected to human self-sufficiency less reliant upon modes of production and movement that are harmful to the environment. Particularly inventive is the stanza that introduces the “grey transformer box,” that we are to understand has been built as a source for the neighborhood’s electricity, that “hulks” precisely because of the over-reliance on certain energies. At the same time, as children appear constantly throughout Hecate Lochia, the transformer box also might reference the children’s toy known as the transformers. This pun is rationalized at other points in the collection as labor is outsourced and the lyric speaker does reference the incidence of lead paint found in toys manufactured in China. At the same moment, the electricity generated by the “transformer box” is radically juxtaposed against the emergence of catastrophic energy as directly engaged by the anniversary of the atomic bombing. These lyric collisions operate to unnerve and vex us, where the suburb’s seemingly cloistered impermeable boundaries can be infiltrated and undermined. The poison ivy’s supposed encroachment on the terrain of the home is brought into relief in the final stanza through the lines, “white refrigerator on/all day,” where the reliance again on energy and its potential detrimental effects on the environment is alluded. Who is the invader, the offending presence, we suddenly question?

Hoa Nguyen

In “They Sell You What Disappears,” the lyric speaker directly engages the global economy:

They sell you what disappears it’s a vague ‘they’
maybe Capital T who are they and mostly
poorly paid in China

Why does this garlic come from China?
It’s vague to me shipping bulbous netted bulbs
Cargo doused with fungicide and growth inhibitor

What disappears is vague I can’t trade for much
I can cook teach you cooking ferment
bread or poetry I can sell my plasma

They are paid poorly in Florida
picking tomatoes for tacos
Some CEO is surely a demon
in this poem

Need to buy need to buy or else
you are always paying rent one month away
from ‘the street’
3 neighbors asked for money this week
We are guilty
bringing in sacks of food bought on credit

Trademark this poem mark this poem with a scan code
on the front and digitally store it somewhere
not to be memorized “by heart”.

In the context of the global economic crisis, “They Sell You What Disappears” challenges the hermeticism of the American nuclear family in light of the struggle to make profit and to find more efficient modes of production. In this case, the repetition of the word “vague” (at three separate moments) is suggestive of this poem’s elucidation of Marx’s theories on commodity fetishism. Here, the labor generated in the process of creating commodities is obscured as the money economy becomes the primary mode of transaction between individuals. The lyric speaker emerges then as the ambivalent subject, seeking to situate her own privilege, where T-shirts, plants, and fresh groceries become household objects that must be interrogated more fully. The meta-critique reaches its apotheosis with the suggestion of the poem’s own marketability, an ironic invocation of the capitalistic omnipotence.

I conclude this review with a reference to the poem, “Up Nursing,” that opens the collection. In the final lines, the readers are confronted with this question, “Why try/to revive the lyric” (13). Without an answer, Hecate Lochia leaves us unmoored, still grasping for meaning, for purpose, seeking perhaps for protection for our loved ones, even though such safety necessarily and often comes with it dangerous insularity and ignorant consciousness. It is in this effective instability that Hecate Lochia both dazzles and disturbs.

Read Bookslut’s interview with Hoa Nguyen here.

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