Eliash Strongowski’s collage Outleap is the cover of Khaty Xiong’s first book of poems, Poor Anima, released last year from Apogee Press (2015). Bright pink flowers crown an anatomical, muscular head. Immediately, we are offered a blooming body and the potential of wilderness and beauty. In Xiong’s work, growth and decay occur simultaneously throughout family narratives and intimate investigations into selfhood, exile, and sorrow. A second-generation Hmong American poet, Xiong grapples with language, song, and haunting narratives. This debut collection from Apogee Press, which publishes the work of innovative and experimental writers, stands firm alongside Asian American poets including Truong Tran and Tsering Wangmo Dhompa.
Poor Anima opens with “Refine”—a poem located outside of the book’s three sections. The title itself suggests the desire for clarity, a kind of treatise or ars poetica. Indeed, can poetry be a cleansing act? What can language offer in the face of personal and collective trauma? Xiong’s questions in this poem are direct and bold. She asks: “Why would anyone want to write this?” and “What is vulnerable?” In answering what is vulnerable, she writes: “not the child clucking/at the breast of its mother, mouth ajar…” In this attempt to refine and answer, we are offered image and metaphor—a beautiful muddying. Xiong carefully and boldly uses words like “clucking,” which echoes loudly. Here, vulnerability begins with bravery and the felt word.
Throughout the book, we are hyperaware that Poor Anima is written in English and not in Hmong. In “Fenced,” the English language—the language of the colonizer—acts as the fence that holds in and keeps out. This lack of freedom and removal from one’s native tongue results in exhaustion: “The tongue ossifies exhausts your English.” To counteract such ossification and loss, “niam nyiaj hnia nyiam nyias” is resurrected into voice. Yet, these Hmong words are italicized, noting perceived distance and difference. Likewise, the Romanized Popular Alphabet is used, a Latin-based system developed by American missionary linguists in the 1950s. Even when the speaker uses her native Hmong tongue, the ghost of the colonizer still exists. Xiong calls such language difficulty “an alarming structure” and reaches for a native tongue stripped from such coercive history. Indeed, as the title of a later poem puts forth, “Being Hmong Means Being Free.” But the speaker also acknowledges “there is no way to say I want to go home again.” Instead, returning to Poor Anima’s first poem, the speaker clucks and clucks.
“Fenced” is followed by the collection’s most notable and longest poem. Calling upon sound to “go home again,” “Ballad” allows the reader to dwell and be drifted via image, sound, and memory—albeit imagined. The style of this poem recalls Lorine Niedecker’s long poem “Paean to Place,” echoing its swaying form and sound associations. Here, Xiong takes us on a journey interweaving home with sensory detail. The domestic and political melt into each other: ““a snipping louse/in wet mud” exists in the same space as “wounds laid by blasts/tumbling planes.” The world in “Ballad” is full of dense sensory detail, recreating what the novelist Salman Rushdie calls an “imaginary homeland.” Home floods back in full color, despite distance in terms of place and time. Throughout the poem we are met with a powerful sense of haunting, in which forgotten histories are brought to the forefront. “Ballad” raises key questions for us: what does it mean to be an exile? How can one piece together the histories of prior generations? As Xiong writes: “I mourn the living/as they rise” and “the dead lost/again/unmoving/some morning.” The poem continues to drift in and out of such haunting spaces.
In a recent email correspondence, I asked Xiong about the importance of haunting and history in her work:
“I am only one generation removed from the trauma and horrors of the Vietnam War that my parents, select siblings, and relatives, among many others, experienced. Although I was born and raised in California, I inherited a lot of their loss through their songs and stories. Being a nomadic group of farmers, the Hmong have never truly had a country to call home; even our origin is a mystery. Growing up as Hmong American had its complications as well. I tried very hard to stay close to my roots and to my native language (that I eventually lost grasp of due to schooling), but Western influence was also strong because I wanted to “blend in” with everyone else at school or in public. I wanted to be that Asian kid who could speak English well, because I wanted to protect my parents and help them navigate this strange country by speaking for them, and I wanted to prove that I was one of many good things that rose from the ashes of my parents’ trauma. Ironically, through this need to stay close to my roots and to protect my parents (in more than one language), I became estranged from the very things that I believed defined me as Hmong. I think the word I’m really looking for regarding my estrangement is ‘ghost’; I have these attachments to past lives that I can only love from a distance, and I think my poems are these ghosts who are trying to have a conversation with no one to bear witness or listen.”
Notably, haunting gains power through sound. Xiong’s work is deeply invested in the movement of the ear. In a way, Poor Anima acts as one long song-poem. “Hais kwv txhiaj" or sung poetry is an important practice for many Hmong men and women. She points directly to the significance of sound in poems such as “Coop”: “My father coos an aria for the hen that’s about to burst.” In this moment, sound becomes synesthetic; we hear the aria and feel and see the bursting hen, feathers flying. These sounds are imbued with a unique story and weight: “incendiary breaths blowing (bellowing), chopped wind against/the brow – cilia lost in thought, barbs untouched, both the auris and oris still red.” And later, words like “bawking” and “craw” are marvelously onomatopoeic.
Such intense sensory detail has a goal: to uproot the forgotten history of the Hmong people. As she posits through her poems, war and exile is deeply embodied and affects the next generation. History reverberates. From the poem “Pavor Nocturnus”:
“Tell me of your war body curled deep in the rifle, the whistles
of man (lost father), the mountains jungled in the mist.
You reach for me in the old language, spreading
fingers to break the shadow, holding onto the darker throat.”
This passage is full of both tender and violent imagery, from “curled deep” to “holding onto the darker throat.” War and speech is written on and in the body. Here, the word “jungled” is palpable. Indeed, neologisms like this are used throughout the collection, allowing us to re-imagine the potentiality of words. Retuning to haunting, the poet Prageeta Sharma writes about Xiong being “a telepath with language.” As a vessel through which the war body speaks, Xiong offers a world full of shadows that desire light.
In the poem “Bad Blood,” she writes about her own position as the telepath or storyteller: “Exile opens such possibility, and ghosts remind you to care. Somewhere,/someone remembers for me the two ways to remember stories.” Exile can be generative; such stories must be remembered and cared for. Yet, what weight does that place upon the poet? Rather than a burden, can freedom arise? In “Friday,” the poet speaks to herself through an epistolary poem:
“Dear Crying Baby,
You don’t know what help is
Come on a little louder, open that spillway.
The sky torques with snow and the fowls don’t forgive.
Inside, you are slopped.”
Thinking about Xiong’s earlier question on vulnerability, this passage recalls Heidegger’s concept of geworfenheit or “thrownness.” With thrownness, one is thrown into the world with the frustrations, sufferings, demands, and social conventions that one does not choose. Here, the crying baby is born with the role of the storyeller, the poet. The trauma of past generations echo forth immediately: “Inside, you are slopped.” These stories pour over. And yet, even with this responsibility beyond one’s control, there is beauty and growth. As she writes in Poor Anima’s striking penultimate poem, “Song of the After-Life”:
“you will make up for density swallowed by history
yes, there is much to practice in use-making, even here
in the petaled pink of a snake’s maw”
Here, even though one is “thrown” into the world with the sorrow of past generations, the poet “will make up for density” and “practice in use-making.” The beautiful image of the “petaled pink of a snake’s maw” is both utterly gentle and dangerous.
To return: what is vulnerable? This is vulnerable, venerable, able.
Jane Wong‘s poems can be found in anthologies and journals such as Best American Poetry 2015, Best New Poets 2012, Pleiades, Third Coast, and others. A Kundiman fellow, she is the recipient of scholarships and fellowships from the U.S. Fulbright Program, the Fine Arts Work Center, Squaw Valley, and the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. She holds a MFA in Poetry from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and teaches Poetry and Asian American Studies at the University of Washington Bothell and the Hugo House. Along with three chapbooks, she is the author of the book Overpour (Action Books), forthcoming this September. The recipient of a 2016 Digital Humanities Fellowship from the Simpson Center and the NEH, she is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Washington and focuses on the poetics of haunting in Asian American poetry.