The Tribute Horse, Brandon Som’s debut full collection, is a surprising title once you wade into the first few pages of this beautiful mediation on migration, cultural memory, and the great mitigating force of both, language. The title image is almost like a piece of statuary, a trophy or memorial object, and to be sure, this collection does feel like a tribute, but it spends far more time at sea and among the heights of birdsong and other utterances than would seem to warrant that powerfully terrestrial and corporeal image of the horse. The Tribute Horse, Brandon Som’s debut full collection, is a surprising title once you wade into the first few pages of this beautiful mediation on migration, cultural memory, and the great mitigating force of both, language. The title image is almost like a piece of statuary, a trophy or memorial object, and to be sure, this collection does feel like a tribute, but it spends far more time at sea and among the heights of birdsong and other utterances than would seem to warrant that powerfully terrestrial and corporeal image of the horse.
It’s a brilliant title that haunts—ironically, via its corporeality—poems that are otherwise far more ethereal or conceptual, comprised of myths, histories, phonetic analyses, readings, and other noumena that are more of the mind than out-of-doors. Kazim Ali, in his introduction, calls this work “ravishing in its sonic pleasure,” and that is absolutely true, but I would take it even further. These poems are utterly obsessed with sonics, from the “stowaway vowel between one aspirate, one liquid” of his name (“Som”); to the “leg-kick song” or “abrading wing-teeth” of insects; to the “stammer” of a smith’s hammer that “shakes him to his teeth”; to a silent remnant of birdsong, exquisite in its delicacy: a “locket syrinx held in the palm.” Writing figures just as prominently as well, whether a ship bow “that dips & rises / like a pen signing the horizon”; the detained poet who, writing his poem against a wall on Angel Island, “hews & whittles / closer / to the sound coming through”; the spackling wasp who “utters what it gnaws; walls what it says” with its “mouth-print”; or the countless references to brushes and calligraphic techniques.
Speech and writing are held in a remarkably sustained concentration that lightens and darkens across the collection’s five section breaks, elegantly marked with simple black pages titling the same scrawled, nest-like glyph. Most of the sections are anchored by a long poem, often in a cycle format, with abutting short one-off poems. The poise and pacing of this layout is relaxed, mirroring the poems themselves, in which the lines tend to arrive with a clearing of breath that brings its sonics, its assembly of image, and its conceptual sophistication into satisfying relief. The opening cycle “Coaching Papers” quickly establishes the territory: these are poems about trans-Pacific migration and the memory of origins—in this case Asian folklore, cultural traditions, food, and artworks—within new world settings: polyglot environments (not only English, but Spanish, Latin, and Italian), Western education, and urban life.
There is an overwhelming feeling of transition, a remaking of self, that is mirrored in the gap between speech and writing. Right away in “Coaching Papers” we get this:
A paper-name ensures a debt
of sound. A paper wake, a ream
ripsawed by utter-breath, feathers
—tract to vane—my throat.
Or later in the same poem, we get the name that “goes searching for breath / aligning the sextant of its shape / with the plane of the written page.” There is the distinct sense of the primacy of speech, and a speaker who seems always searching for it, as an authentic mode. This feels tied to the emphasis on origins, but it also makes a great deal of sense as a motivation for the poems’ sonics. We can hear Som’s ear in the angular cutting of phrase in the lines above, but we also hear it in his delightful play with assonance and alliteration, as in the “Oulipo” cycle, a series of homophonic translations of Li Po’s “Night Thoughts.” One of my favorite of those quatrains:
Trundled nights of a nun
Fissures between rival tongs
You sell wontons here
Detuned doo-wop songs
Som’s style changes from time to time. At times he is more acute, dropping articles and subbing in ampersands to heighten his rhythmic effects, and at others he relaxes into more prosaic modes, as in moments during the effectively straightforward poem “The Nest Collectors:”
[ . . . ] Once
at a wedding’s banquet, my father, so often frugal,
spoke on the extravagance of the first course,
of the trellises, in sea caves in China, centuries-old
and twine-tethered by nest collectors.
The sonic impulse is there, and at moments like these we can see Som thinking through his own habits, making decisions about when to break from song. Even here, just preceding these lines, we get a contrasting, more highly tuned poetic rhythm, a bravado of iambs: “the murmur / of watt and want the nestlings fledged above.”
It is these brief breaks into prosody, and into more terrestrial/located scenery, that make this collection more than just music, that enrich the evanescent events of song, the ephemeralities of speech (to “sift spindrift for sound’s wave”), or the memories of a motherland. Littered throughout are startling and arresting moments of more cohered image, a firmer sense of scene, as though we have woken up from the poem like it were a daydream. Sometimes it’s quick: “A subway car sounds like you / Searching the silverware / For a tablespoon” (from “Seascapes”). Sometimes it’s a little more sustained: “A light wind blew seed into the web between tines of a hayrake. A soldier stood letting his horse drink well water from his helmet. The moon trembled in it.” (From the beautiful prose poem, “Elegy.”) But here and there we are afforded glimpses of these fully embodied scenes that stand, horselike, in the abstract churning of this poet’s meditations. It is just enough to balance the collection with another sort of possibility, always in fleeting glimpses, that never lets us forget the world’s multiplicity, its layers, scales, and resonances.