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reviewed on April 25, 2024

Follow-up to her visionary debut Ghost Of (Omnidawn, 2018), a finalist for the National Book Award, Nguyen’s sophomore collection returns in some ways to the set of experiences that made that book so arresting—namely, her brother’s suicide and his prior actions to cut himself out of family photographs, an effort that continues to inform Nguyen’s distinctive “cut-out” visual poems, present throughout Root Fractures as throughout Ghost Of.


While Root Fractures offers the same raw witness to those events, the collection feels far more expansive in scope, sweeping in its historical portrait of a family caught up in the aftermath of the Vietnam War.  Following the lives of her parents as they meet for the first time—“on a Californian campus in 1983,” she writes, where “they stood under a tree which bore fruit foreign to both”—Nguyen examines the effects of diaspora on family relations and its foreclosure of her own cultural history, one to which Nguyen retains a kind of limited or mediated access through the Vietnamese language.  “In Vietnamese,” she explains, “the meaning of a word depends on the tone of each vowel. // In order to remember the sounds of each tone, I rely on words that rhyme.”


Such concerns are familiar enough, but Root Fractures distinguishes itself from similar collections in two important ways: first, in the remarkable intimacy with which Nguyen treats not only her brother’s death but her ongoing estrangement from her mother, and, second, in a quasi-spiritual mysticism with which Nguyen imagines enduring connections across time and space, reentering the past—as she does throughout Root Fractures—in an endeavor to access parallel and more hospitable historical conditions.  “Decolonization is not as simple as closing a door,” she writes.  “It begins by picking up where my four-year-old self left off.”


As she traces lines of genealogical tension and fracture, especially in her relationship with her mother, Nguyen cultivates a frankness I have encountered in few other collections, an unposed intimacy which suggests precisely what is at stake in Root Fractures.  “‘If you talk or write about our family,’” Nguyen writes, “‘we will be forced to take action,’ my mother said the last time we spoke.  I knew what she meant by ‘take action,’ since she had previously threatened to sue for slander.”  “One morning,” Nguyen writes in another poem, “for the sake of my daughter’s life, I cut myself out of my mother’s life,” returning to a word—“From Latin praecis: ‘cut short,’” she explains earlier in the book, “From the verb praecidere, prae- ‘in advance’ + caedere ‘to cut’”—resonant with the violences of past.  Though disclosures like these possess, I think, the titillating allure of gossip, Nguyen uses them to document the historical and familial conditions in which poetry might be possible, as well as to suggest the interrelated and repercussing costs of exile, diaspora, and dispersal.


Against such forces of dissolution, however, Root Fractures posits poetry itself as a kind of mystical intervention in and re-creation of history, an inflection point where absence and presence—and past and present—overlap, echo, and interanimate.  “[I]n the white space,” Nguyen reminds us, “there are so many ways so many versions of ourselves lost we can start over again.”  Profound in its meta-poetics, Root Fractures traces not only the fracturing of the past but the fractal-like proliferation of parallel pasts, in all their redemptive potential:


            This is a passing of their story from inside the black hole

            to the outside.  We used to think nothing ever came back out.


            So here we are.  One is here, the other one over there, but

            we know what happened to him.  That he exists.


Somewhere, Nguyen writes, her brother “joins my parents’ fathers in the elsewhere.”  Somewhere we always exist. 


If such mysticism slips on one or two occasions into folk-song sentiment—“we can meet in the middle let’s meet in the middle”—Root Fractures nonetheless astonishes in its formal instantiation of its spiritual investments, so that techniques like strikethrough  and the subjunctive mood feel more than mere gimmickry.  “Mid-flight, my father absently stares at his brother’s leg, which may or may not contain a bullet wound.”  What might come off, in the hands of a less ambitious writer, as empty wordplay here becomes a technique for imagining the fleeting possibilities and missed connections that exist, Nguyen insists, hidden within the cuts and corrugations of time.


It is a pleasure to follow Nguyen’s stunning second collection into those spaces, and to think with Root Fractures as it works back through the fractures and fractals of history, reminding us—with great awe and wonder and reverence, it seems to me—that “time and time again it is time we can’t apprehend.”

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