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Saigoneer Bookshelf: In Poetry Collection 'OM,' Đặng Thân Embraces Human Turmoil

At the heart of Đặng Thân's poetry collection, OM [Other Moments], is the poetics of dichotomy: beauty and brutality, light and darkness, hope and despair, nihilism and existentialism.

Thân's poetry unfurls multiple folds of life in which living is already a subversive act of power. Through his scrutiny, reminiscences, and consciousness, Thân dissects layer after layer of realities he inhabits. He repeatedly uses the word OM in all its religious and philosophical manifestations to reveal and question the ironies of Truth ('Multi-dimensioned Trance') and the love and avarice that drive humans to fight for one another and break each other apart ('Tears on the Desert'). Striving in the liminality of this dichotomy, Thân inhabits loss, gazing into the emptiness of “the root of the universe,” manifesting his sophisticated sense that “everything comes from nothingness/both are an eternal pair” ('The Shock to Root').

In his uncanny and lyrical cosmos, Thân embraces human turmoil from which he re-imagines spaces of chaotic equilibrium, which he calls OM or the “mantra” of religions and an “embrace” (ôm) in Vietnamese. The book's 24 poems fall nicely into two sections: AM moments and PM moments. His depictions of the intensity of time and space, the maelstrom of reason and contradictions, jolt readers out of their serenity, reminding us of a fleeting but memorable human love in this “Holistic World” ('To God the Earth is Just a Toy').

A bilingual poet, fiction writer, essayist and critic — whose idiosyncratic prose and rebellious style are praised in the literary circle where he belongs — Thân is considered an outcast in the mainstream literary landscape of Vietnam for his unconventional literature. Thân doesn’t resist “the labels,” only because being a tragic iconoclast is not a hollow position but a subversive place to write from. It doesn’t cripple but enriches his imagination as an exilic soul in the world where only “wealth and fame” are worshiped. In his despair of the ossified ideological landscape, Thân asks: “Is this the way you choose-without pity / Followers with no creativity [?]”

The most nihilistic poets are sophisticated philosophers. 'New Spring' for example, ironically offers a spring lost in the colors of oblivion. He writes: “I wished to be a painter of colors / But I was born under black, cold covers / So I couldn't trace joy into my art / Which left me with no place with which to start.” Thân mourns the spring that never returns, leaving him lost the melancholy of “Day after day nothing new comes to you” ('Mother'). Thân's poems disorient the reader, fragmenting our imagination, compelling us to rethink the notion of equilibrium in chaos, as “all moves always / as if they have no target, or the target of life is by all ways / to move / or all regret” ('A Day Off'). And the author harbors a visceral “strife,” perpetually asking himself “Who are you?” ('Today’s Wh’s').

Thân's poems are also eyes through which we can contemplate the world just beyond our imaginations. 'Whose Eyes?' is never just about eyes. “The beauty, the magnetism, and the fragility of love and heavenly loved ones” are embodied in those eyes — every vibrant, breathing thing in this world has eyes; when those eyes are closed, life is broken, dead. Thân takes the reader into lost and empty spaces. He compels us to endure innermost agony, to temp violent greed, to relish the beauty of kindness. Through those eyes, everyone is “you,” and Thân moves readers fluidly through his re-imagination of beauty and fragility, of misery and bliss.

Elsewhere, as in “Come and Go Happy,” Thân invites the reader to get rid of everything “dirty” of this mundane world and come “...hug to warm all the hearts longing to beat free / Hug to share your power of love / Hug to show our truest-self / The world is too large, our peaceful world is small.” Such lines contain Thân's recognizable epiphanies, though they are mostly random. What OM offers most is the shudder of the transformation. It allows us to fancy the lava in the volcano before it erupts and turns everything into ruins.

Đặng Thân's poetry resists facile reading. Like an abstract painting, like “mist”:

in the mist

lighting in the must


through the darkness

loosely crickets blowing woodwinds with zest

[lightened with everlasting alcohol]

fireflies spreading light

never rest

— 'Misted with Life'

Thân's poems are a labyrinth of entangled, enigmatic obsessions. Much is intuitive, or natural like the air we breathe. In OM, his signature style troubles the conventional way merciless grimness is written.

OM also presents us with stunning and indelible images teeming with lasting reverberations. The poet gives us bewildered people striving to fathom their existences ('BeWILDeredness') or quietly pursuing serenity when “spring is calling by the verandah floor / flowers flying / breaths of bright air stirring / brows and lashes / keep making a pass at one another” ('This Spring Morning'). But one sometimes walks through this life feeling one’s heart filled with only nothingness because “all one can do is keep going / in a human world of sudden falsity” ('Solitary You'). He portrays places and people with a skeptical and vulnerable heart without ever breaking into their mysterious universes or interrogating with empathy.

Thân's poetry is distinctively witty, polemically wise, and aphoristically honest, showing the reader something of reality, or even beyond that, actually: it propels us to gaze deeply into layers of realities. 'Cosmopolitan' is an illumination — Thân writes mercilessly about “global citizens” who cross borders of this world suddenly realizing “In social networks more than 'fifty shades' have / been recently shed light on.” This sounds like despair, but this is also salvation, as “you are your sure-enough self from now on / a thrust / and more thrusts / for all to be awe-inspiring reborn.” That’s salvation. That’s often what the reader feels when coming across poetry that salvages reality; and we all need that salvation. Always, as human perfection is compatible with neither the pursuit of illusion nor the escape from treachery.

Quynh Vo teaches English at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa. Her research interests focus on globalization and literature, Asian American interdisciplinary studies, Vietnamese-American literature, and neoliberalism in American transnational literature.

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