Nguyen’s poems are often deceptively straightforward when first read. The diction is simple, and the sonic elements—including rhymes, alliteration, and the use of playful homonyms—are deployed with sing-songy insistence. The poems move in short bursts, occasionally pausing to correct themselves, as in “Living”:
My 3-faced goddess nests in the rootsRather than grouping child birth and child bird together, the parenthetical correction serves both as an interruption and an amendment of the thought, complicating the reading of “nests” beyond the initial uterine connotations it begins with.
a fruit for child birth
(I wrote child bird originally)
As the poems whip back and forth from “I” to “you,” it’s impossible not to also see the self-correcting as a piece of the larger dialogue Nguyen’s work engages in. The poems grapple with whether it’s possible to make space for one’s own voice amid a steady stream of external opinions. While the speaker corrects herself out of concern for her own sense of writerly precision, there is also the sense that she’s responding to exterior critics of behavior—the poems respond to those who would dictate what people, particularly mothers and women, should be.
There are a few misses, as in the earlier poem, “18 Year Old Kurt Cobain Arrested for Painting ‘Homosexual Sex Rules’ On The Side Of An Aberdeen Bank: Police Report of Pocket Contents.” This poem is, of course, a list poem. Slightly shorter than its title, the poem gives five items purportedly found in Cobain’s pockets, but unfortunately none of the items are particularly surprising or notable in terms of what is known about Cobain.
It’s rare for Nguyen to present pop culture on its own terms, however; instead her poems tend to be spaces where the public and the personal collide compellingly, where the abstract suddenly gives way to moving specificity. For example, “Some Things” begins, “Some things are subordinate to other things / in the order of things.” From this abstract claim, the poem makes its ambling way from fish to crows, and then comes finally to its end, bringing the earlier abstraction into sharp focus:
Environments collapse how can IThis move at the end both focuses the poem and changes its tone to one more sincere. But the sudden cascade of very real and personal preoccupations is also undercut by the levity of “human pee,” a noun choice that at once evokes babyhood, suggesting that the final phrase, “and not enough energy” might be read as pertaining equally to the plight of the environment as well as to a worn out mother of young children.
have another baby There being
too much human pee and not enough energy
Nguyen’s rapid tonal shifts from nursery rhymish to incisive, from certainty to ambivalence, make for poems that pull readers in with their surface simplicity, but hold up under scrutiny. Eschewing hyperbole for understatement, Red Juice makes claims that would feel trite in the hands of a poet less sensitive to tone. Nguyen hedges the endings of even would-be pronouncements, as at the beginning of “Iris Again”: “I could have wings and stand/alongside the other gods but/not in my own right.”