Summer Book Reviews: Afterland and Lessons on Expulsion


by Mai Der Vang (Graywolf Press)

“The sky sleeps quilted in a militia of stars.”
—from “Light from a Burning Citadel”

Winning the 2016 Walt Whitman Award, Mai Der Vang’s debut collection is a manifold text, acting at times as witness, as memory, as survivor. Vang writes of the Hmong experience with brilliant and mature authority, and her book travels in time and geography to bear witness and tell her family’s story, from the Secret War to refuge in unknown land.

In writing about the Secret War in Laos, Mai Der Vang shapes images into hard rocks upon which the logical mind must eventually break. Afterland swells with images and language that express a danger to the mind that seeks to know and understand. In “Toward Home”, we travel in and out of sense and nonsense, are given one image only to bend and break its meaning upon the next: “Say a rooster is my mother./ Say there is a coffin in its body/ That can only fit my skull./ Say I find a lighthouse burning/ In a cave. Smoke above/ The field of broken feathers”.

The bent meaning is a beautiful new meaning in itself, something freshly made that language on it’s own cannot hold. To speak honestly of war, Afterland seems to argue, one must be willing to let in the darkness around the words, allow it to work center stage in the midst of absurdity: “Violets are hatching volcanoes./ Today’s bees have swallowed/ The last milk of lanterns” (from “Meditation of the Lioness”). In the reading of her poetry, you get the sense that this second meaning must be kin to the inheritance of memory and witness. An inheritance and responsibility the book’s author, as a child of refugees, wrestles with:

Q: What is the responsibility to your history and your parents? —
A: “My Attire is the Kingdom”
Q: What is the responsibility to those lost and never known? —
A: “Dear Soldier of the Secret War”
Q: How do you go forward without losing the past? —
A: “Afterland”

Mai Der Vang’s voice is uniquely mature for a debut collection, with undeniable authority over her language. Seductive in its other-worldliness—though threatening too—Afterland is not a rural homespun collection of middle America. These poems of the dark primary voice lurking in hearts everywhere, waiting as witness for the inevitable violence, and the inevitable hope. The language will haunt you, the broken images will attach themselves to the back of your mind with their sharp, crooked edges.

Lessons on Expulsion

by Erika L. Sanchez (Graywolf Press)

“I am only a girl/ with this brilliant black/ nest of eagerness.”
—from “Lessons on Expulsion”

Lessons on Expulsion is the poetry debut of Erika L. Sanchez, daughter of Mexican immigrants and 2015 recipient of the Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Fellowship from The Poetry Foundation. Filled with lush, organic language, the poems saturate the pages with bodies, with flesh bursting, in ecstasy, in violence, or both. Where Vang’s poetry lifted itself into surreal abstraction, Sanchez writes poems that ground the reader, get their feet muddy alternately with dark confession and with poetic journalism.

The book is filled out with a range confessional poems—some further from any specific moment (“Self-Portrait”, “Lessons on Expulsion”), while others are so up-close that the reader feels voyeur: “we braid our bodies together/ on my twin bed. I dig my face into his beard… we eat two slippery eggs and drink coffee with frothy milk” (from “Lavapiés”). No matter the length of the focus, abstracted from time or in the moment, body imagery is used powerfully to texture and give vitality to the poems. In “Self-Portrait”, Sanchez writes, “My tongue grows plump/ as a greedy slug./ Again and again,/ an umbrella,/ opens inside me.” Bodies inside bodies inside the reader’s body.

Sanchez effectively balances these confessional poems with more journalistic pieces that have no mention of the poetic “I”. These poems—“Narco”, “Kingdom of Debt”, “Juaréz”, and others—help the reader take a step back from the particular moment, work to bring the reader into a larger history. The momentum of the confessional brings compassion to the interspersed stories of Mexico and unjust violence. “Forty-Three,” coming in the second half of the book, lands in the reader’s lap like an un-pinned grenade. About the 43 missing students kidnapped and presumed killed in 2014, the lines read:

“The blood-birds hiss and grunt
while a man with pointed teeth
whistles a love song. Why waste
time with metaphors? The body
is kindling. The body is a plastic
bouquet shriveled at a crossing.”

And this is the power of Lessons on Expulsion—to confront history’s challenge: why waste time with metaphors? Because, we must confess, our bodies need other bodies, singing in metaphor. With lushness of phrase and dynamic displays of body and joy and despair and hurt, Sanchez’s debut collection strikes like human thunder, the air burnt in the reader’s lungs.

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