Thursday, May 6, 2021

rob mclennan: A Thousand Times You Lose Your Treasure, by Hoa Nguyen

A Thousand Times You Lose Your Treasure, Hoa Nguyen
Wave Books, 2021




To introduce a February 2018 profile on Griffin Prize-shortlisted poet Hoa Nguyen for the Saigoneer, Paul Christiansen wrote: “Before giving birth to her, Nguyen’s mother, Diep, motivated by a rebellious spirit and a difficult family life, fled her small village and joined the circus at age 15. After putting in time doing menial tasks for the outfit, she became a stunt motorbike rider in a famous all-female troupe—barreling perpendicular to the ground at breakneck speeds inside large domes without so much as a helmet or pads. On one occasion she even performed for President Ngo Dinh Diem. She crashed in front of him, but ignoring her tattered uniform and bloodied body, she steadied herself and got back on her bike to finish the performance.” (“A Vietnamese-American Poet’s First Return to Vietnam After Half a Century”). A few week after the article appeared, Nguyen was in Ottawa, as part of the VERSeFest “Factory Lecture Series,” where she spoke of that trip, and describing her mother’s history as part of a stunt motorcycle troupe in Vietnam, and of the loss of her mother’s first child. Through her talk, she spoke through ideas of language and culture, and using one language to write a past written and spoken in another. Part of what seems to have resulted from those explorations of lost histories is Nguyen’s latest poetry title, A Thousand Times You Lose Your Treasure (Seattle WA/New York NY: Wave Books, 2021), an intimate and compassionate portrait of the author’s mother as a young motorcycle artist. As she writes as her “Notes on Images”:

The all-women stunt motorcycle troupe that my mother belonged to was named Hùng Vit. Established in 1955, the Vinh Long-based group traveled to regional celebrity in southern Vietnam before disbanding in 1961 when traveling became too dangerous. One of the managers of the motorcycle troupe also owned and operated LIGHT, a photography and portrait studio in Saigon. He took some of these promotional photographs for the troupe. I do not have a record of the photographer’s name.
There were five members; the names of three of the women are lost to me. In the photo where the troupe is assembled alone together, my mother is second from the left, looking directly at you. The woman on the far right is Back Yen; she left the group after a serious motorbike fall and went on to pursue a successful international singing career.
As part of the performances, Di
p would ride to the highest mark on the barrel, the red line. She was only one of two riders who would ride hands free or in a formation on the wall. As the motorbikes circles, audience members could offer money to the riders in appreciation of their bravery, and riders would take the bills skillfully from their hands.
Her Vietnamese name was Nguy
n Anh Dip. When she left Vietnam for North America in 1968, she became Linda Diep Lijewski. On the back of one of those photos, for the apparent purpose of giving it to someone unnamed, my mother writes as follows:

          “This is a glorious time, in 1956.
In those days I was a flying motorcycle artist—
this is the sole memory of my life.

          For my friend, to keep as a memory…
The flying motorist artist”

A Thousand Times You Lose Your Treasure includes an array of archival photographs of her mother’s motorcycle stunts (which caused my five year old daughter to remark: That doesn’t look safe!) and the occasional family letter, as Nguyen explores the distances of who and where her mother was or might once have been, citing language, loss and memory through the divisions of language, culture and time. There has long been an element of Nguyen’s work that has featured memory and loss, but there is something here that feels heightened, perhaps due to such intimate focus on her mother’s past, which can’t help but include, as well, her own origins. As well, the poems in A Thousand Times You Lose Your Treasure, some of which appeared in the chapbook ASK ABOUT LANGUAGE AS IF IT FORGETS (Toronto ON: knifeforkbooks, 2019), shift from the predominantly shorter, meditative lyrics of As Long As Trees Last (Wave Books, 2012), Red Juice: Poems 1998 – 2008 (Wave Books, 2014) or Violet Energy Ingots (Wave Books, 2016) to poems a bit more expansive and storytelling, with a deeper intimacy and care from an author who has always been known for both, citing more specific and sprawling details of family lore. She composes lines pulled and even stretched apart and across silences, such as the middle third of the poem “Why This Haunted Middle And Door Hung With Haunted Girl Bones,” that writes:

Go into your tree      roll on a rabbit fur blanket
refuse to eat for thirty days     plus ten days

        Unremembered        does it matter
misremembering the baby she lost     a different baby

(unborn       never born        the unnamed)
This rain reminds me of rain

“Sways      laughing / to glint past / river  river / and / river-parted lovers / of myth,” she writes, to open the poem “MOTHER’S RIVER MOON (TRAVELING WITH / THE TRAVELING CIRCUS, LOWER MEKONG, 1959).” Nguyen’s lyrics are composed as accumulations of phrases, nearly written as point-form movements and images, such as the poem “ASK ABOUT LANGUAGE AS IF IT FORGETS,” that includes: “She read the taboo novels / named daughters // for tragic rewritten heroines // trodden oceanic sorrow // She will ride ruffian // She will be the baby taken back / from her half-Khmer mother [.]” There is a lightness to these poems, a delicate touch, but one that also threatens to drift away, given some of her mother’s uncertain recollections, allowing the past a tenuous tangibility. As with any family story, even at the best of times, there can be incomplete answers and half-formed questions, not always aware of how or even what to ask, and to whom. Throughout, Nguyen performes her own high-wire act, stepping point to point, even while writing across the shadow of the Vietnam War, motorcycle adventuring, stories of her biological father appearing in her mother’s life, and references to “the first Hoa,” much of which is set across the landscape of the Mekong Delta: “what electric ribbon of water / re- / becomes  delta / fish and moving mouths / as the nine dragons move more” (“MUD MATRIX”). And of course, Nguyen writing the girl who would become her mother: “A motorcycle act that came to her province,” she writes, as part of “THE FLYING MOTORIST ARTIST,” “in the lower Mekong Delta / joining a country fair / for the New Year    1954 // everywhere we came to see / displays of snakes / contortionists / fortune-tellers / to exchange caged birds // she the disobey // Dip done with farm chores [.]” These poems exist as an incredibly powerful elegy to connections lost and a life well-lived, and as both tribute to and portrait of her mother, capturing an array of  moments that might otherwise have entirely slipped away.

Where is the buried    the first Hoa
gone to ground (buried
in Mekong mud)

dead unknown years
drowned in lung matter

The first Hoa had not medicine
I got it
(the medicine)

    and got the golden visa
and the ash hair
and breathings

lashings to a raft life
lashed to life   the blonde

    joke of
pull eyes (“SING DING (GHOSTLY)”)







Born in Ottawa, Canada’s glorious capital city, rob mclennan currently lives in Ottawa, where he is home full-time with the two wee girls he shares with Christine McNair. The author of more than thirty trade books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, his most recent poetry titles include A halt, which is empty (Mansfield Press, 2019) and Life sentence, (Spuyten Duyvil, 2019), with a further poetry title, the book of smaller, forthcoming in April 2022 from University of Calgary Press. In spring 2020, he won ‘best pandemic beard’ from Coach House Books via Twitter, of which he is extremely proud (and mentions constantly). He spent the 2007-8 academic year in Edmonton as writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta, and regularly posts reviews, essays, interviews and other notices at

most popular posts