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Not Here by Hieu Minh Nguyen, Coffee House Press, $16.95
Same-Sexy Marriage by Julie Marie Wade, A Midsummer Night's Press, $16.95
The Sexy Storm by Edward Van de Vendel, A Midsummer Night's Press, $13.95
In "Not Here," his second book of verse after 2014's "This Way to the Sugar," Minneapolis-based poet Hieu Minh Nguyen presents a slowly simmering cauldron of intensity, emotion, and queerness. Within this stunning collection, he examines relationships, pain, racial inequality, homophobia, identity, trauma, recovery, and the dynamics of culture, and braids them into impeccably constructed passages that demand attention.
The author, who personally designed his own book-jacket art, opens this collection with the first installment of a series of interconnected poems called "White Boy Time Machine," which chronicles the lives of boys as their lineage moves through innocence, awkwardly cloaked attraction, and onward into the discovery that their whiteness and their inherent maleness are enough to fester inequality, erupt power struggles, and take whatever lays at their feet. "No matter where we go, there's a history/of white men describing a landscape/so they can claim it."
One of the strongest entries here, "Lesson," involves a son and his troubled Asian mother, who blames the family's unrest on her husband while he can only stand by and witness the injustice as a "boy inside his mother's body/shoveling coal into a screaming red engine." "Attending the Party" is a crushing self-examination of a man's loneliness and disillusionment with the outside world all around him. Other entries find him marginalized by his ancestry or demonized and stigmatized by his alternative sexuality.
Other familial references include poetry examining the origins of the author's surname, his brother's legacy, and his memories of sexual abuse, which crowd out any shards of light or joy from a youth steeped in guilt and shame. At nearly 80 pages, this is not a meager anthology of featherweight prose, but a sharp exercise in introspection, as Nguyen's often painful, biting words form a mirror image of his adolescent grief, but also illuminate the ways he is transforming and discovering a way out of his unhappiness, and forging a new path forward.
A pair of compact, pocket-sized books of poetry emerges this spring from independent poetry publisher A Midsummer Night's Press, beginning with lesbian author Julie Marie Wade's just-published novella "Same-Sexy Marriage," which tells the story of generational perceptions between a mother and daughter through a series of poems.
The narrator describes the typical heterosexual life of her mother and her traditionally valued expectations in direct contrast to her own lesbian life, eschewing a husband for "a condo on the other coast/with the woman I love, where/the beach is our own backyard."
Boosted by an uncanny openness and unfettered honesty, Wade escorts readers through poetry that describes the life of a lesbian living against the grain of her aging parents' presumptions. Her novella in verse also cleverly plays with the concept of the "Boston marriage," and includes comical yet relevant references to Mary and Dick Cheney, Anne Heche, and the fantasy of gay-married life in the New England suburbs.
Also of note from the same publisher comes European poet Edward Van De Vendel's "The Sexy Storm," which, at 43 pages, is even more diminutive than Wade's work, yet just as potent. This book's poetry is fueled by youthful passion and luminous imagery from the perspective of a lovelorn boy in love. In Van De Vendel's world of boys, taut shoulders shimmer like "bars of pale gold," memories blare "like a siren," and impulse rages even in the oddest of moments: "My mouth wants to taste your toothbrush/(from that time you stayed the night and called it a mistake)."
This book forces readers to remember their youthful and simmering desires, whether unrequited or fully realized, and to appreciate the sweet burn of that first contact with forbidden lust, and the unmistakable electricity and solid grip of taboo love.