By Kathryne Lim
Poetry is the only art form that aims to engage its audience through three distinct areas, or modalities. Those modalities being visual, the form or shape a poem takes on the page; textual, or the creation of meaning through written words; and auditory, or the formation of sounds and how a poem is heard. While aware of these areas, many poets fall short of exploring all three with an equal level of skill and attention. Though not Diana Khoi Nguyen.
I recently heard Nguyen read from her debut book, Ghost Of--which won the Omnidawn 2016/17 Open Poetry Book Prize--at Lighthouse Writer’s Workshop in Denver. I knew then that I was listening to something different, something that blurred and tested the limits of what poetry can do. A few days later, I ordered the book and was not disappointed.
In the book, Nguyen abandons regular stanzaic form, opting instead for sprawling lines, floating fragments, and justified blocks of text. Additionally, she creates forms--circles, shards, silhouettes--from the words on the page. These forms often appear directly beside the images from which they were taken, such as haunting images of family photographs, out of which Nguyen’s brother had cut himself before taking his own life.
The text of the first Triptych that appears in the book mirrors the shape of the family photograph appearing on the preceding page. Within the text, as within the photograph, is a white space where Nguyen’s brother’s form is missing. In appearance, the block text looks structured and contained. But the words themselves create long rambling prose that has no clear beginning or end.
When Nguyen read from the Triptych, her voice was measured and clear. When she came to the white space within the text, her voice dropped off abruptly, remained silent for every missing beat, and then returned with the same measured assuredness. The silence in the middle of the poem was unnerving, captivating the audience. The silent beats came unexpectedly and often in the middle of a word, creating even more jarring breaks, such as:
I am list ening
dropped th e needles
my hands encl ose the environment
I don’t believe I have ever experienced white space at such a visceral level, and the auditory experience ultimately led me to purchase the book. It taught me how to hear Nguyen’s poems in my head, how to take my time with them, how to read them.
While absence and grief are the prevailing themes of the book, Ghost Of is filled with an undeniable spirit. In trying to make sense of something that cannot be made sense of, Nguyen utilizes a variety mediums and is not afraid to be messy or playful or new. Near the end of the book, a sort of revelation can be seen in the poem “Reprise” when Nguyen writes, “Like some strange music: the world started up again around him.”
Ghost Of leaves readers with gives me a feeling of hope--Hope from the fact that art is evolving and our own role in creating it is evidence that we are alive. The experimentation and breadth of Ghost Of is proof that poetry is still very much alive and is even better when shared with its audience in multiple forms.