Red Juice by Hoa Nguyen. Effing Press, $7.
Reviewed by Nikki Widner
Hoa Nguyen's latest chapbook has the same affect that small pictures on walls do. Red Juice imbues the sense of walking into a stranger's house and being fascinated by what may be revealed. Room by room these poems trace the books, interior walls, paintings, portraits, snapshots, furniture, knick-knacs, and floors. The cover also evokes a sense of the everyday, watermelon red flowers, seed, stems, and rabbit on ivory paper, which looks like remnants of a house: wallpaper, bed sheets, and children's book illustration. Each poem is this kind of familiar arrangement, small snapshots of the everyday. Visceral and urgent, they are anything but ordinary.
“Up Nursing then make tea / The word war is far / 'Furry,' / says my boy about the cat / I think anthrax / & small pox vax / Pour hot water on dried nettles / Filter more water for the kettle / Why try / to revive the lyric.”
Her lines in motion turn both inward and outward (kettle and lyric), up and down (war and furry, cat and anthrax). They reflect lists or thoughts, agile and effortless. Yet they are built with rhythmic tension, open and active. In “Up Nursing,” the rhyming patterns are stressed at the end of words and lines (“anthrax / & small pox vax”). They, like her word arrangements, are unexpected sounds and tensions, as if they are replaying an arrival.
Nguyen's lines also disrupt expectation with imaginative leaps: “I could click the Earth / with my finger spin / to continents holding a cardboard box / on my head / I was trying it ou t/ It was an invention” (“Journey with Investigative Bees”). This poem expands outward from the page, from two to four dimensions, a pop-up book folding directions. It is the journey of possibilities, specific with each beginning or with each day.
“the lake was skinned Membranes /” exemplifies a physicality rooted in the poems' space (“YESTERDAY”). It is the reader, too, who belongs in these poems, who finds familiarity in a welcoming home. The walls made of dreams, stones in small hands, gold lacquered coasters and the smell and sound of eggs cracking and potatoes frying. Or the relationship between the shapes: stones, eggs, potatoes, earth merging in the act of creation, “The muse with cookies.”
Balancing such forces as destruction and creation, the poems refuse simplistic dualities. Opening the poem through disruption, layers of sound fold into timelessness. These limits are self-imposed, weaving tiny frameworks for greater discovery. “I am she who unknots the cord / and lashes us boatless.” This is how we travel in Red Juice, boatless floating in liquid. We are written into a small frame that stills us quiet, contemplating our journey and hoping that after the last page we can enter again, soon. We carry these pictures in memory and shapes in hand, shared but often discarded moments. What we are left with is the memory from her rhymes, her pattern making.