As Long As Trees Last
by Hoa Nguyen
Wave Books, 2012
As Long As Trees Last is Hoa Nguyen’s third volume of poetry, preceded by 2009’sHecate Lochia and 2002’s Your Ancient See-Through. Poems in this volume aspire to Jack Spicer’s notion of the “small vocabulary” discussed in After Lorca. “A really perfect poem,” Jack Spicer writes, “has an infinitely small vocabulary.” Throughout As Long As Trees Last, this small vocabulary expands with each of its terms’ repetitions. Easy to spot, but not to pin down, these lithe poems make its chinaberry trees, children, birds, magic words, appropriated language, wind, and drought cover wide territory. Nguyen’s poems may be small, the longest of which spans across two pages, but they span from Valentine’s Day 2010 to the Maya Queen consort Lady Xoc; immense pressure from such short lines. It could be called an echo-poetics—for its heavy repetition—and an eco-poetics. The effects of drought on daily life, the importance of trees—the title of the book itself implies an open-ended ecological imperative—fill these poems the same way Nguyen’s vocabulary seems to fill or form a house. We not only read about trees, but trees populate the poems’ backyards, wind chimes chime on the poems’ front porch, the language of fact appear like radio news overheard from the next room, as though a toy lifted from the ground. And inside the house that Nguyen builds magic and the mundane collide. “The cup fills up,” she writes in “Being” and cued-in by the lines “old man magic” one can almost see the grail before reading “you wash dishes.” Elsewhere, in “Rain Poem”:
Kind of day: beans on toast
and become ‘the Professor of Transfiguration’
“It’s the ‘end of enchantment’” another poem declares, winking and deadpan both. So much is folded into these poems without seeming overrun or cluttered. As Long As Trees Last deceptively resists paraphrase, where individual words, seemingly so small in one poem, bloom and stretch, transport and transform between the book’s covers. In 70 pages the book is one unbroken sequence and can be read over the span of a bus ride—but the initial joy of Nguyen’s wordplay and the complex repetition of terms only benefit from repeated reading and re-visitation.
An As Long As Trees Last companion of references:
From Wikipedia’s entry on “Chinaberry”:
Fruits are poisonous to humans if eaten in quantity. However…these toxins are not harmful to birds, who gorge themselves on the fruit, eventually reaching a “drunken” state…Some birds are able to eat the fruit, spreading the seeds in their droppings.
As invasive species
… Besides the problem of toxicity, its usefulness as a shade tree in the United States is diminished by its tendency to sprout where unwanted and to turn sidewalks into dangerously slippery surfaces when the fruits fall, though this is not a problem where songbird populations are in good shape…
“I have brought the great ball of crystal
who can lift it?
Can you enter the great acorn of light?
But the beauty is not the madness
Tho’ my errors and wrecks lie about me.
And I am not a demigod,
I cannot make it cohere.”
- Ezra Pound, Canto 116
“The Zeroes taught us – Phosphorous -
We learned to like the Fire
By handling Glaciers – when a Boy -
And Tinder – guessed – by power -
Of Opposite – to balance Ought -
Eclipses – Suns – imply -
Paralysis – our Primer dumb
Unto Vitality –“
- Emily Dickinson, 284
“Looking at a Nation herself untaken since before this Harbor
of her Eastward Pointing Cape was tight in ice
and measurements and lines were dropped through ice as far
to the West of South as 207º, Ten Pound Island Ledge
if I twist West I curl into the tightest Rose, if right
into the Color of the East, and North and South are
then the Sun’s half-handling of the Earth. These aspects,
annular-Eternal—the tightest Rose is the World, the Vision
is the face of God—in this aspect the Nation
turns now to its Perfection. Its furthest or its highest
Point, its Limit not reached, the Imagination of it
here or anywhere men in duress or need in thought which taken
is belief, go on the frozen being and do take the marks and bearings. “
- Charles Olsen from the Maximus Poems
“Enthusiastically hurting a clouded yellow bud and saucer, enthusiastically so is the bite in the ribbon.”
- Gertrude Stein “A New Cup and Saucer” from Objects
“The heart’s a sprinting thing and hammers fast
The word is slow and rigid in its pace.
But, if they part once, they must meet at last
As when the rabbit and the tortoise race.
Words follow heartbeats, arrogant and slow
As if they had forever in their load,
As if the race were won, as if they go
To meet a dying rabbit on the road.
Then, step by step, the words become their own.
The turtle creeps ahead to win the prize.
But, ah, the sweeter touch, the quicker boon
Is forever lost when the rabbit dies.”
- Jack Spicer from On Reading Last Year’s Love Poems
Thom Sullivan makes collages, plays gamelan, and collects losing scratch tickets. He lives in Northampton, MA. Send him an email at thom.thom.thom [at] gmail[dot] com