In Kien Lam’s slim but fruitful poetry collection Extinction Theory, readers discover intimate rationales regarding some of life’s most silent, mind-boggling mysteries. The speaker questions God’s residence, appearance, and existence. Simultaneously, the speaker also documents the Asian-American experience—rife with linguistic and cultural differences, as well as increasing racism amidst America’s ever-shifting sociopolitical landscape. The poems in Extinction Theory are transitory, even meditative, transcendent, and subtly political.
“Anagrams” is a poignant poem examining not only the complexity of identity, but also the nuances of balancing two languages. The speaker makes confessional statements, such as “I am an anagram / of my father,” and “I am made of letters / I didn’t learn / until I was five.” The speaker describes assimilation as “an anagram / for cultural exorcism,” and English as “an anagram / for God’s tongue.” According to an August 2022 Pew Research Center article, Asian Americans are the fastest growing racial and ethnic group in America. The speaker’s sentiments echo those of an entire generation of US-born Asian Americans who navigate their cultural and ethnic identity in America, where stereotypes often prescribe what others perceive about and expect from Asian Americans.
“Apogee” is another poem exploring language, but it does so in the context of spirituality—another theme inherent to Lam’s collection. The speaker describes themself as “holy tongued.” Again, the speaker focuses on learning the English language, comparing it to discovering one’s faith. Specifically, the speaker utilizes the biblical tale about Moses parting the Red Sea, stating that Moses “said God / until the dry air / parted the water.” The speaker asserts:
This is how I learned
until it felt natural,
is something you
are born with
and not given.
Subtly, the speaker offers a commentary about assimilation’s demands. Brief, succinct line constructions embolden this subtle commentary. The emotional punches form where periods form sudden line stops, and the phrase “or taken” supplies a commentary all its own.
“Migration Theory” is one of the collection’s hidden philosophical gems. Narrative in form, it uses the natural world to examine human behavior—much like Indigenous works, such as Yuri Rytkheu’s When the Whales Leave. In “Migration Theory,” “The horses migrate. The birds and the whales too,” and the speaker observes, “They are all running from winter.” The poem segues into a discussion of what children inheret from their mothers: “This route passed down from their mother / and their mother’s mothers for so long.” However, the poem is anything but another transcendental observation or piece of environmental writing. The speaker states, “My mother // left her country. And her mother before that. Always wars.” Here, it transitions into a personal account, an examination of the migratory legacy the children of immigrants inherit, specifically when war influences one’s familial legacy.
The poem “Crucifixion” employs the brutal history of America’s role in countries like Vietnam and examines various, sometimes unnoticeable, acts of colonialism. The speaker directly opens the poem with references to napalm, on which American military personnel relied through the Vietnam War. They state, “If I drop napalm / on an anthill, of course / they’ll scatter. Some will die.” The poem shifts from the global to the personal as the speaker notes, “Of course my parents / want to return to be buried / in their home country.” The speaker, however, does not share their parents’ sentiment, reflecting that they are not their parents and that they do not want to return to “my birth in a hospital / with the word Saint in its name.” The speaker then describes the “white hands / wiping blood form my skin” as “remnants / of colonization.” The speaker acknowledges, “I think about Vietnam / from time to time.” At this point, the speaker cleverly challenges the Christian associations with crucifixion by correlating it to Vietnam’s independence:
I hope that’s the same
thing—that on the third day,
it, too, will rise, the foxholes
on its hands no longer bloody.
The poems in this collection establish Lam as one of the Asian-American literary voices to stay tuned for. Like Su Cho’s The Symmetry of Fish and Stephanie Niu’s She Has Dreamt Again of Water, Extinction Theory carefully dissects assimilation, family interactions, and origins. Its language and forms are immediate and insistent, as are the series of historical and personal events it conscientiously outlines.
About the Reviewer
Nicole Yurcaba (Ukrainian: Нікола Юрцаба) is a Ukrainian-American poet and essayist. Her poems and essays have appeared in the Atlanta Review, the Lindenwood Review, Whiskey Island, Raven Chronicles, Appalachian Heritage, North of Oxford, and many other online and print journals. Nicole holds an MFA in Writing from Lindenwood University. Nicole teaches poetry workshops for Southern New Hampshire University and works as a career counselor for Blue Ridge Community College. She is a guest book reviewer for Sage Cigarettes, Tupelo Quarterly, Colorado Review, and The Southern Review of Books.