Reviewed by Eric Nguyen
Along with poets like Vi Khi Nao and Hoa Nguyen, Stacey Tran represents a wave of Vietnamese American poets experimenting with language and testing the limits of the genre. In fact, the first poem in Tran’s Soap for the Dogs, “Catching Fish With Two Hands,” is a collaboration between Tran and Nao. As Tran explains: “Vi and I would alternate lines. There was no rhyme or reason to them. The only constraint is we would text a line and wait for the other person to respond. You can only send one line at a time.”
The resulting poem is one of unexpected images—an “adult man/pours milk/into a beer mug,” “a bear cry is the sound a bear makes/while feeding baby birds,” among many others—layered with linguistic tension as progress toward meaning is playfully thwarted. The process poem calls to mind the autocomplete feature on phones and search engines that are meant to save time but instead result in nonsensical phrases. That it was written via text message before the two poets ever met face-to-face makes it a very 21st Century poem illustrating the irony of not being able to communicate despite all of our technologies. It is this failure of communication—and the gaps of understanding—that is central to Soap For The Dogs, Tran’s energetic full-length debut collection.
Born in Portland to parents from Vietnam, Tran is no stranger to gaps in communication and experience that are common to children of immigrants and their parents. The title itself is credited to the poet’s father from the phrase “xà bông tắm chó,” translated here twice: once into English and a second time as a prose poem which imagines the speaker’s father staying at hotels where he “would save the little complimentary bars of soap & take them home,” soap he would call “soap for the dogs even though we never had dogs & he himself bathed with the soap.” It’s a tender poem where the speaker tries to imagine her father as one of many “wiry young men.”
It proves to be a nearly impossible the task. The speaker is not privy to her parents’ experiences and memories. She confesses: “I count on one hand stories like these. I prod for more, not understanding the pain he must feel in recalling these memories.” Yet the quest for these memories falls short in translation not only linguistically (with a quirky idiom translated into a misnomer) but through image as well. Absent from the poem are concrete details of the father despite our firm placement in these “cheap hotels with ashtrays on the nightstand” and “white towels under the white light.” We are left with an afterthought: a man who bathes himself with soap for dogs, which is not really for dogs.
This attempt to reimagine and translate and make sense of a past that is not hers haunts the collection. It’s a precarious project. What happens between exodus and refugee camp? What happens between refugee camp and immigration? And, more generally, can one ever really know another’s trauma?
In “The Cook, the Priest, the Eye Doctor & Her Lover,” Tran begins by invoking the past of Vietnam: “Women in Vietnam were permitted to own land 500 years before women in America could,” she writes, picturing a pre-colonial feminist landscape. This breaks sharply with the next paragraph as the speaker examines a photo of her petite mother: “My mother weighed 97 lbs. when she arrived at the refugee camp.” The poem ends with her wondering about “the secrets she keeps & if they are burdens for her…” Similarly, “Stock Photos” has the speaker dreaming of a carefree father laughing out loud while she wonders “if this was a vision of my father without trauma…if this was a version of him that is possible for me to experience.”
Elsewhere, the speaker holds firmly to objects she does have that connect her with a history. Harper Lee’s novel To Kill A Mockingbird makes several appearances in the collection as one of the speaker’s mother’s favorite books. In “Mimus Polyglottos,” Tran writes:
In eighth grade we were assigned To Kill A Mockingbird & I went back to my mother’s closet to borrow her copy. I wrote my name in permanent marker in a corner of the book cover, so as to claim it was mine, to protect the fact that I am my mother’s—her only child—that I am the sole custodian of her narrative & any threads that touch it.
Artistically, Tran is less interested in narrative, the story of what has happened. Rather, it is the process of translation and moments of untranslatability that drives her poems. Recurring “fake haikus” throughout the book echoes this as Tran translates the Japanese haiku form into American English pseudo-haikus. These neither add up the strict 17 syllable requirement nor do they ponder on nature as traditional haikus do. These failures in form suggests the impossibility of translation and the impenetrability of language and culture. Yet like Tran’s longer poems, these are just as personal in their details and just as playful in their jumping logic: the absence of body becomes butter in a haiku about failed intimacy; in another, a speaker’s identification with “the oncoming season” brings to mind another part of nature—“nonspecific melon cubes” (a very Hoa Nguyen-like phrase in its sudden lightheartedness).
These poems highlight a grander thesis in Tran’s project. The end of “Mimus Polyglottos,” finds the speaker stumbling upon “a website with photos of confluences around the world,” trying to understand “where two bodies of water meet & that eventually do mix.” The gap of communication and of experience, for Tran, is not a lacuna but a place ripe for exploration and an opportunity for reconsolidation. In one of the collection’s most resonant poems “To My Mother/To My Future Daughter,” the speaker ambiguously talks to both her mother and her future daughter—a past generation and future one. In the last lines, she addresses them both as they travel on the road; she tells them, “I hope you do not hide,” in a gesture towards conversation and exchange.
Tran’s poems live at this intergenerational crossroad. Soap for the Dogs is both an exploration and celebration of these intersections of personhood and experiences. Through agile movement through disparate images and a catalog of translations—across languages and senses—she negotiates meanings sometimes startling, oftentimes playful, always surprising.
Eric Nguyen has an MFA in creative writing from McNeese State University and BA in sociology from the University of Maryland. He has been awarded writing fellowships from Lambda Literary, Voices of Our Nation Arts (VONA), Sundress Academy for the Arts, and the Tin House Writers Workshop.