If you’ve ever doubted the existence of ghosts, Do Nguyen Mai’s debut poetry collection, Ghosts Still Walking, will surely change your mind. Spanning both centuries and continents, the poems effortlessly switch from a personal to a firmer and more-assertive tone. Not once do they shy away from complexities of the cultural and emotional sort, instead laying them out in an honest fashion.
The collection is formally divided into three parts, and the poems can be roughly classified as being either historical or personal in nature. Some act as a sort of ‘exposition,’ allowing for smoother transitions between the other two categories. As someone who has not had much exposure to Eastern history, Vietnamese culture in particular, the historical poems were enjoyable not only for the miniature history lessons they provided, but also for the aspect of timelessness in the emotions and thoughts they presented. “From Phùng Thị Chính to Her Child” is worth singling out as a stellar example of this, giving the reader a glimpse into the moment when Phùng Thị Chính tells her child:
This death is my love,
this short life, a single
battle instead of
a century of defeat,
my only hope for you.
The counterpart to this was a poem that appeared in the latter part of the collection, entitled “Firestorm.” Despite its use of Confucius and traditional views of women, the poem’s applicability to present-day was chilling, both hopeful of all the progress that has been made in terms of equality, but also reminding of the need to continue the fight. It was in this poem that the balance of history and modernity was most strongly felt.
In the East, women are often referred to as phoenixes, and
men, as dragons.
I admired the way Do Nguyen was able to use simple language to deliver such an emotional impact, considering the fact that language was another central theme of the collection, closely tied with the topic of culture. The middle section, “Tongues of Fire,” is made up of four fragments, each focusing on one language, which I found to be the most successful in addressing the topic. Despite focusing on Mandarin, French, English, and Vietnamese, there was an aspect of universality to the poems, in lines such as:
Am I savage for wanting to speak in the only language that
will not slice my tongue into slivers so small I might
It’s practically impossible not to find something relatable in these poems, regardless of your own culture or upbringing. The structure was the only ‘shortcoming’ of the collection, mainly due to its jumpy nature. While there is something haunting about being able to read a poem about war and then one about a long-distance lover in the span of a few pages, it was at the same time difficult to place some of them, like “From the Dragon King to the Fairy Queen, on the Day They Parted Ways,” in the overall context. Other, shorter poems sometimes got overshadowed by the heavier and more emotionally-packed pieces, though they played an equally significant part of a relatively calm pause in between the emotional storms.
One thing is certain — the poems of Ghosts Still Walking may slow down slightly in pace, but they never lessen their bite. It isn’t the type of collection that one can sit down and easily get through in one sitting. If you do, then you are almost certainly going to miss a lot of the smaller nuances. Rather, the best way to describe this collection is to use one of my favorite passages from it:
I cannot tell whether the
earth is shaking under the distant gunfire or if
it is my bones quivering as I try and
hold you close for the final time.
(from “The Final Night”)