A REVIEW OF
White Bull by Elizabeth Hughey
Come Clean by Joshua Nguyen
University of Wisconsin Press
Two award-winning collections from southern poets promise robust reinvention in 2022
By C. T. Salazar
Special to the Mississippi Clarion Ledger
USA TODAY NETWORK
“We are being said / though we can’t quite hear / ourselves being said” writes Elizabeth Hughey in the opening poem of her third collection, “White Bull”. “White Bull”is a feat in finding the language to demystify our time and underwrites all the consequences that make it ours.
The poet in the acknowledgments states that the book was a writing project of nearly a decade, and likewise one can feel that this small volume holds and is written across so much that we lived through, and that so many didn’t live through.
Hughey has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Sustainable Arts Foundation. She’s the author of two previous poetry collections, and the co-founder and programming director of Desert Island Supply Co. (DISCO), a literary arts center in Birmingham. “White Bull” is the recipient of the Kathryn A. Morton Prize, and available from Sarabande Books.
One of the most striking features of “White Bull” is it’s entirely re-purposed, upcycled language, as explained in the book’s opening note: “The poems in this collection are composed entirely of words taken from letters and public statements of Theophilus Eugene “Bull” Connor, the longtime Commissioner of Public Safety for the city of Birmingham…His last years in this position were…the height of the civil rights movement in the South, during which time Connor wielded his power in defense of the city’s racial hierarchy.”
Knowing that the language that makes these poems is a kind of salvaged stitching from a power built of terrorizing solidifies one of the starkest ideas that make “White Bull”. That behind and underneath our own lives is a history so much ours we’ll never be separated from it. The lyric-mode of the poems is sometimes darkened, sometimes made opaque by this knowing: “We did not yet know / what the lake was made of. / We didn’t know what the water had done” (“Girls of the Lake”).
Still, this method of poem-making leaves plenty of room for hope—that with our same language we can build something new. Even the most fearful moments of these poems are tinged with that hope, as in “Heave in Heaven,” the poem’s speaker says “thinking our sons / may fall out of bed straight into a war / and so how softly I pull my children from sleep. / I try to make their pains evenly dosed and time-released”.
If ever there was a language to add to masculinity a tenderness it’s starved for, it is found in Joshua Nguyen’s debut collection “Come Clean”. The poems in “Come Clean”meditate on family and the speaker’s desire to find the best life possible while reaching toward an understanding of both the speaker’s American and Vietnamese inheritance. While “Come Clean” is a first book, the poems’ ability and virtuosity suggest Nguyen is a poet who has already spent a great deal of time tending his craft and performance.
Native to Houston, poet Joshua Nguyen is currently pursuing a PhD at The University of Mississippi, where he also received his MFA. Nguyen is a queer Vietnamese-American writer, a collegiate national poetry slam champion (CUPSI), and the recipient of fellowships from Kundiman, Tin House, Sundress Academy For The Arts, and the Vermont Studio Center. His debut collection “Come Clean”was awarded the 2021 Felix Pollak Prize in Poetry.
Nguyen is caring but also accountable to his subjects. Poems like “Ode To My Brother’s V-Neck” start with a simple address to a hand-me-down shirt (“A vertex passed down / from one generation to the next”) but by the poem’s crux the lives of the siblings meet and part like two sides of the V: “If I write him enough times / he will meet me at the airport. // Two runaways / elevating off the ground into an orange sun.”
Written in three sections, each section is marked by a punctuation that haunts the body of poems throughout “Come Clean”: the brackets [ ]. As poets do, Nguyen has developed and expressed an entire philosophy embodied and shorthanded by the presence of this punctuation through “Come Clean”.
In the space of the brackets, Nguyen most often leaves the in-between blank, absent of words. Sometimes these brackets are holding breath, sometimes they’re embodying the desire to hold something that can’t be held because it isn’t present, like the past.
Perhaps more, Nguyen is challenging our Western and arbitrary divisions of past and present. The collection’s opening poem “Save Me, Marie Kondo” includes the epigraph quoting Kondo: “When you put your house in order, you put your affairs and your past in order, too.”
One of the more refreshing aspects of “Come Clean”is how aware the poems are of each other in the collection. Nguyen often employs an American variation of a traditional Vietnamese form called the Luc Bat. After reading four of Nguyen’s American Luc Bats, a fifth poem “A Failed American Luc Bat Responds” bites back against its own circumstance: “How much of me must be / written before I am just another / bastardized item?”
Both Elizabeth Hughey’s “White Bull”and Joshua Nguyen’s “Come Clean”offer readers something more than simple certainty and artificial resolution. They invite us to a depth where we might move poem-to-poem into a better idea of our past—American and intimate, and the relationship with it we cultivate and care in each other.
C. T. Salazar is a Latinx poet and librarian from Mississippi. His collection, “Headless John the Baptist Hitchhiking” is forthcoming from Acre Books in 2022.