Colorado State University Center for Literary Publishing

Book Review

Paper Bells

By Phan Nhiên Hạo

Reviewed By Tracy Zeman

Buy this book

Phan Nhiên Hạo’s title poem, tucked within the book’s first dozen pages, begins with muffled candor, “The paper bells hanging from the ceiling / make no sound” and ends with a kind of circular, futile logic, “My spirit can’t take flight. / The paper bells make no sound.” The poem’s speaker may feel voiceless given his life’s harsh reality, but the deceptively plain-spoken poems about exile and dislocation, truth and lies, mortality and beauty, time and memory, and politics and history, are anything but quiet. They clang with brutal honesty, “The poor lead vulnerable lives / just one falling ill or losing a bet / will flush a life down the can”; surreal irruptions, “My head is a flame / throwing open the door / to each blaze”; and dark humor, “west of Chicago / the day smells like peanut butter / on the fields of glory tractors are busy drawing / the austere face of freedom.” Awash with wandering loneliness, Phan’s lines vacillate from contemplative to biting, economical to allegorical, and frequently close with a measure of irony or irreverence.

The collection, translated by Hai-Dang Phan (a poet in his own right) often in collaboration with the author over the span of ten years, opens with a brief biographical preface about Phan Nhiên Hạo’s early life in South Vietnam and his emigration at age twenty-four to the United States by way of the Orderly Departure Program. We glimpse the aftermath of the war Phan was born into, complicated by his father’s service in the South Vietnamese army. We learn about Phan’s academic pursuits in Vietnam and America and his “commitment to a South Vietnamese refugee memory and the floating life of an exile poet.” His poems continue to be “unpublished—and unpublishable—by the state-run presses in Vietnam”; consequently, Phan publishes in Vietnamese literary journals abroad. Paper Bells is his second translated collection to be released in the United States.

Phan’s dislocating documentary poems about his lived experiences as a refugee frequently reference memory and time. He writes in “Flamenco Vietnamese Opera,” “Time is a perfect crime / convictionless and dissolving / in a solution of weakness and sewage.” In Phan’s poetics the past mingles with the present and seems to forestall the future. Phan tells the reader that “this is the story about a cut the length of decades / about an incestuous history . . . Sometimes I push the door open onto the future / but the counterfeit past snuffs out the present.” This heightened consciousness of time might be linked to the exile’s feelings of restlessness and loneliness—that nowhere is home, creating a sort of ever present instability, persistent wariness, and encompassing anger.

The experience of placelessness, of the past’s oppression of the present and shadow over the future—an immigrant experience—is expressed in grim, biting truths in Phan’s poetry. In “Greyhound, 1992,” he describes a bus ride from Atlanta to Seattle, where he sat next to a “Hmong dude” who “drank milk the whole trip” because of gastritis from “years of starvation / and bitterness from growing up in a piss-poor nation.” There is a literal “bitterness” in the gut, but this passage also evokes an emotional bitterness that spills into the poem’s final lines, “Back then, I felt like an immigrant made from plastic, / resilient and resistant to all types of acids. // In 1992, the Greyhound from Atlanta to Seattle / only cost $85 for the 2,600 mi. journey. / America, you swallowed me down your throat / cheaper than dirt.” “Resilient” and “resistant” but not without “bitterness” and resentment toward both Vietnam and America. Starved in one country but treated like “dirt” in the other. And furthermore, tasked with cleaning away the “dirt” of others, as he states in “Nights Working as a Janitor in Seattle,” “your duty is / to disinfect the underside of life / disappear all the evidence before sunrise.”

In “Da Lat 1998-2002” Phan details the complexity of a refugee going back “home” and not knowing it any longer. He recounts,

Returning to Da Lat in 2002 on the fourth day of the Lunar New Year
I no longer recognized Da Lat.
I saw a beetle trying to flip itself over its legs
tiny pines waving at the sky.
I ran up to Cu Hill but it had turned into a breast
for Taiwanese business to climb on top and squeeze every day.
I went down to the lake,
its right side had dried up, its left side was trashed,
the lakeshore lousy with snack vendors and souvenir photographers.

The beetle, like the speaker, is “flipped over”—the once familiar is now unfamiliar, and the disembodied breast (disembodied body parts, bodily fluids and functions, and sex acts recur in these poems) reinforces that perversity of feeling that home is no longer home. Instead of nostalgia, the speaker feels disillusionment and disgust. The “breast” image is also an example of how Phan uses the surreal to expose unpleasant realities.

The same phenomenon is at play in the prose poem “Saigon on a Good Day.” He writes, “Once on Ngo Thoi Nhiem Street I saw an old woman squatting against one of the high walls of the hospital, weeping, tears pouring out of her face like fresh juice squeezed from a sugar cane machine.” This poem also demonstrates the irreverence, dark humor, and irony in his work. The poem starts:

Saigon is sunniest at seven, but only becomes honest at midnight. For
breakfast everyone has fried eggs, bbq pork ribs, and coffee. It doesn’t
matter, all meals are the same across the country. Everything is thriving
and gorgeous always.

That was 2001, the year I returned to Saigon, back in the gutter.
Sometimes in life you fall into a ditch on an idle battlefield where you
can’t stick your head up, and desertion is not an option. All you can do
is sit on a helmet with bullet holes and watch the rats eat the corpses.

Phan’s work is rife with dichotomies: rich/poor, exile/native, perfect/desolate, hopeful/hopeless, appearances/reality. “The part I hated most was artfully painting over money with a yellow coat of pretension,” he writes. Towards the end of the poem, the woman crying tears like fresh juice tries “to appear cheerful so I’d stop with the questions, leave her alone, thinking she wasn’t bothering anyone, so she could simply go back to being a pitiful old woman in this great city full of rich tycoons and long-legged models, teeming with brutality and stupidity.” Over and over Phan exposes the ugly truths, the absurdity, and the despair in the places he’s inhabited—the experiences he and others like him have endured.

His poems are built up phrase by phrase, episode by episode, image by image, around an emotional center of gravity that becomes increasingly political and sharp as one moves through the collection. In the book’s final poem, Phan claims “History is a series of seizures. / If lucky we live in the meanwhile, / in periods of peace. / Our task is heavy and hopeless, / trying to cure this madness / while finding food / and searching for happiness / in the yard of our homes like chickens.” He seems to say at the close, that the problems of the human condition and the fight against “this madness” is a mostly pointless effort, empty—like soundless paper bells.

Tracy Zeman's first book Empire, recently won the New Measure Poetry Prize from Free Verse Editions. Her poems and reviews have appeared in Beloit Poetry Journal, Chicago Review, Cincinnati Review, Kenyon Review, Colorado Review, and others. Zeman has earned residences from the Sitka Center for Art and Ecology, Ox-Bow, and The Wild. She lives outside Detroit with her husband and daughter.