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Hanoi Bookshelf: Multitudes Contained in 'Red Thread' by Teresa Mei Chuc

Seeking, sucking, tonguing for each scrap of contained marrow: should a book of poetry labor over a single topic the way a mouth savors a soup bone? Or should it be akin to a buffet plate atop which the author delicately places a diverse sampling of subjects, truths and stories? How many of the multitudes Whitman famously claimed we all contain should be included in a volume?

Cohesive narrative versus eclectic collection: this is a question contemporary poetry around the world grapples with when deciding what books to publish, praise and honor with awards. Of course in art, there are no right answers and exceptions abound, but recently the pendulum has seemingly swung towards works centered around a singular theme, especially when the author occupies a minority identity, be it one of race, gender or sexual orientation.

With topics ranging from motherhood to flowers to mathematics to cartography to moon cakes, Red Thread by Vietnamese-born American Teresa Mei Chuc situates itself satisfyingly in the camp that understands poetry can reflect a writer’s many ideas, interests and experiences.

Chuc at Millard Canyon in Altadena, California. Photo via the Poetry Foundation.

Family Connections

The book opens with an explanation: “According to Chinese legend, an invisible red thread connects those who are destined to meet, regardless of time, place or circumstance. The thread may stretch or tangle, but it will never break. In addition, the red thread is a protection and blessing cord in Buddhist tradition” In an interview with Rattle Chuc elaborates on the many layers and meanings the image contains and that “flow through the arteries of the collection." Family is one of them.

Chuc grew up in a matriarchial household and describes female relationships with great tenderness in numerous poems. For example, she likens hugging her grandmother to holding the branches of a peach tree which the “bees circle to get pollen and nectar.” Buddhism and motherhood intertwine in the poem 'Devotion' in which her mother, who prays to Buddha every day, “is full of compassion / and love even as the fly / is squashed between her hands.”

The metaphors combining the human and natural world continue in the standout 'Photosynthesis' which is dedicated to her son. In it she asks him:

How can I convince you

that you do have chlorophyll,

that you can take the sun’s

energy and turn it into sugar?

Produce something sweet inside of you.

Take the waste people breathe out

and make it into something that

will keep you alive, that will keep

those around you alive, create oxygen.

 

Vietnam’s Presence

The poems detailing Chuc’s father stand in sharp, painful contrast to those about her other family members. When she fled Vietnam with her mother and sister to California at age two, he was forced to remain in Vietnam, held in prison for nine years. His story is a lens through which she explores her homeland’s difficult past and the lingering effects of trauma. She bravely describes how after the war he was treated like a water buffalo, forced to strap a plow to his shoulders and “pull as if he were carrying the entire mountain / of Hoang Lien Son.” When they finally reunite in a later poem, he has been transformed into “an Egyptian cat; skinny, foraging and stern” as if to say that when the humanity has been taken from someone, it can never be truly returned and time can only alter the animal one has become. 

Chuc's parents in Vietnam. Photo via Colorado Boulevard.

While only part of the book’s focus, Vietnam occupies a prominent place early on. Despite growing up in America, the war that precipitated her exit from her homeland announces itself in the first poem, 'The Bomb Shelter.' The short narrative free-verse piece details how even though she was safely in her mother’s womb in a Saigon bomb shelter,  “when bombs are exploding outside, / It means that there are implosions. / Vibrations travel through air and liquid. / My amniotic fluid is imprinted with airplanes.”

While she avoided the subject when growing up, as Chuc got older she recognized the importance of examining the war and how it has impacted her relationships and identity. Poetry seems to allow Chuc to grapple with its legacy and how others interpret it. She explains in an interview with Counterpunch that: “I wondered how I could be living in a country that gave my family and me shelter but at the same time destroyed my birth country and its people. It was incredibly difficult to come to terms with this history and to find a way to constructively deal with the emotions and pain.”

Beyond telling her father’s story, Chuc has said that she seeks to fill in “the gaps and emptiness in the spaces of the narrative about the American war in Vietnam” that only reveal the perspective of Americans and too frequently end with their nation opening their arms to fleeing refugees. The poems, therefore, detail horrors such as “women raped, / implosion of unwanted flesh / like unwavering knives and bullets“ at My Lai and the napalm that “was made to spread wildly / to stick itself onto human skin, / scar tissues, muscles, organs.” The examples present necessary realities to readers that too frequently see the conflict from an opposing vantage point.

In the west in general, and America in particular, citizens often consider Vietnam as synonymous with war. Thankfully, not every poem focused on Vietnam in Red Thread concerns itself with such a subject matter. Poems describe local ghost legends, a scene of Hmong children playing and the beauty of the Vietnamese word for “to live.” Others are less overtly about the country, but remain rooted in it, such as the graceful consideration that chopsticks were invented: 

Against a backdrop of sunset

two reed-like legs are dipped in water.

Snake-like neck swings back

then forward like a sword

and catches a small fish

between its beak.

 

Looking Outside the Self

While Chuc relies on her and her family’s lives for inspiration, she has a talent for finding it outside herself as well. She deftly transforms singular objects into complete poems such as cashews which are edible moons, “two crescents stuck together … a small boat on the lake / of my tongue.” She elevates such quotidian objects thanks to her creative command of image and metaphor. When a heartbeat becomes “the drumbeat beneath the melody of blood,” the poem delights for its use of language as much as its narrative content.

Elsewhere, the sheer uniqueness of the subject matter gives the poems urgency. For example, 'Resourcefulness' focuses on fishermen in the Solomon Islands who angle for fish with jaws too narrow to swallow hooks. Instead, they must use spider silk that “bobs like an insect across the water,” gingerly removing the webs with their fingers while holding the caught fish in their mouths.

The book also reveals Chuc’s interest in science and mathematics because, as she explains, “I think there is a beauty when we can show how things work together, how we are a part of a greater harmony, how we reflect the world.” Her fascination manifests itself in poems such as 'Newton’s First, Second, and Third Laws of Motion,' wherein “Death does not discriminate—two people fall at the same speed of 9.8 meters per second squared” and “Putting the guns down is friction. It will slow the war down until it seems like there is no war, but F = ma. The effect of war continues, long after it is over, in ever-expanding waves.”

The confluence of inward and outward attention seems to have engendered Chuc with a unique empathy. Perhaps the brutality her own family suffered motivates her to write about Palestinian refugees who were gassed and convulsed “as if from the bite of a scorpion” in the heart-wrenching 'Eternity in Gaza.' Spanning species, she even places herself in the perspective of young birds whose “wings are used to convince air of its ability.”

 

Reception and Dissemination 

Since its 2014 release, Red Thread has received positive attention, a significant amount of coverage in American literary outlets and led to many interviews, all of which can be found on Chuc’s website. Being an English-language book and considering the difficulties of international distribution it has been noticed less here in Vietnam. Several of her poems, however, have been translated into Vietnamese for print and online publications by numerous writers including Que Mai Phan Nguyen. These translations are especially important for Chuc because they have allowed her parents to read them. 

Photo via author's website

Many of the reviews and interviews in America about the book focus heavily on the poems directly involving the war and its aftermath. Those poems, however, constitute less than 25% of the book, albeit some of the longer, more arresting ones. Observers could consider such focus an important and necessary way to return the war’s narrative to all-too ignored Vietnamese perspective or, conversely, a sad reminder that in the west, minorities are all-too-often reduced to their single traits of otherness; a suggestion that minority poets lack the skills to be praised for "conventional" topics.

The war in Vietnam and the perpetuated violence and pain will understandably have prominent positions in the lives of Vietnamese for generations. However, in the same way that Vietnam is more than just the war, Red Thread shows that Chuc is more than just Vietnamese; she is a human writer with diverse and interesting insights, emotions and experiences. The book serves as a compelling example of how literature can help wrestle away one-dimensional understandings of people and their art. 

 

Saigoneer Bookshelf is a new series that shares favorite works of literature written by writers of Vietnamese descent. It recommends books while exploring the themes, contexts and craft elements they contain. Red Thread is currently unavailable in Vietnam, but is easily purchased through Amazon.com and similar international book sellers. 


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