Reading Notes: Afterland by Mai Der Vang

76º ~ days of sun & heat followed by storms, the mid-south in all its late spring glory ~ we are well-watered and thick-grown

As a member of the Academy of American Poets, I receive a copy of the Walt Whitman Award winning book of poetry each year; sometimes they hit, sometimes they miss. This year’s book, Afterland by Mai Der Vang, was a definite hit.

Like Shirali’s Gilt from my last post, Vang’s Afterland brings us the poetry of immigration, this time from the Hmong point of view and with the added horror of being displaced by violence rather than by choice. Afterland was a difficult read because of its content, but a joy because of its amazing blending of craft and imagination.

For those who need a refresher, as I did, the Hmong people were first indigenous to the Yellow River valley of China some 3,000 years ago. By the mid-19th century, most Hmong had migrated to Laos and were living in the highlands there, in an often contentious relationship with the French colonial powers. In the 1960s and early 70s, the Hmong people aided the CIA in “The Secret War,” by fighting against Laotian communists with CIA supplied weapons and goods. When the US withdrew from Laos in 1975, only a small group of Hmong were evacuated and many were killed. Others fled to Thailand on foot, crossing the Mekong river. Some of these refugees came to the US in 1976, with many “re-settled” in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area, among other major metro areas. I’m no longer sure if I first read about the Hmong people in the Des Moines Register when I was still in high school, or if I later learned of their community when I was attending the College of St. Benedict outside St. Cloud, MN, but they are a people who have been in my consciousness for decades.

Even with all of this historical knowledge, I do not think that I ever fully processed the tragedies experienced both on an intimate level and on a cultural level until I read Afterland.

Vang’s poems illustrate the intense connection of a people to a land and what happens when that connection is ripped away not once, but over and over again. First, the Hmong were forced south into Laos by Chinese oppression, and then they were either massacred or forced to flee that “homeland.” With this history, the poems concern themselves with ancestry, rituals, and the idea of home. Thus, “afterland” comes to mean both the afterlife and the land to which one has been displaced. As a member of the newest generation of Hmong, of those living in the U.S. Vang offers a sweeping view of this troubled history.

Consider the opening of “Another Heaven,” the first poem in the book: “I am but atoms / Of old passengers // Bereaved to my cloistered bones.” In the fourth section of the title poem (which appears last in the book), Vang writes (in indented lines I can’t get to replicate here): “To meet the end is to go back / through every dwelling, // return my footfalls / to yesterday’s land.” Then, she lists the following cities of her own family’s history, back to her origins in Laos with her grandfather’s family (perhaps, my assumptions are based on Vang’s bio): Fresno, CA; Merced, CA; Lansing, MI; St. Paul, MN; Ban Vinai refugee camp, Thailand; Long Cheng, Laos; and Sayaboury, Laos. As I read the book and went back to individual poems, I couldn’t help but think of the current refugee crisis in Syria and wonder about the poets who will emerge to tell that story, too. Again, this was a heavy, difficult book.

That heaviness arises as I try to explicate Vang’s precision in language and diction, creating images that don’t just move the reader, they shove & jostle. In the discomfort zone, we have images like this one of two brothers: “It was scalpel that day they captured / you both. They sliced off / and boiled his tongue, // forced it down your throat” (“Dear Soldier of the Secret War”). And in “Yellow Rain” of chemical warfare, Vang writes, “a furnace flared // to hollow / your face” and

Another cow dies
from breathing

as you swallowed
from the same air.

The added touch of tying the body of the cow to the body of the person is exemplary of the way Vang works, highlighting the connection of the people to the land and its flora & fauna. Through all of this, the images are never gratuitous; they are carefully sculpted to tell the truth. Through this truth-telling, Vang creates empathy, at least in me.

And, there are poems sprinkled through the book that offer solace, especially the poems that honor the long history of the Hmong and of the dead. In “Terminus,” Vang offers, “I hear condolences / from the eclipse, // light the hidden storm in my hands.” Finally, in “Your Mountain Lies Down with You,” the speaker addresses her grandfather who has died in the U.S.:

Grandfather, you are not buried in the green mountains of Laos
but here in the Tollhouse hills, earth and heaven to oak gods.

Your highlands have come home,
and now you finally sleep.

I confess that while it took me a long time to read the book, from the opening poem in Afterland I felt a kinship to Vang in her poetics. Her diction is sharp and unusual. She blends an advanced vocabulary with plain speech, but more importantly, she makes language new in a way that had me questioning whether I knew the definitions of words I’ve know most of my life. For example, one poem is titled “Heart Swathing in Late Summer.” I had to read the title three times and check the definition of “swathe,” which of course I knew. Still, it was such an unusual use of the word that it sent me slightly off balance (as all good poetry should). Then, there is the way Vang often turns nouns to verbs, effortlessly. There is a body that “baskets fatigue,” a tree that must “cathedral its roots,” and book pages that “widow my way.” With syntax that moves from fragments to complex-compound sentences and adjective-noun combinations that startle, all alongside the often heart-breaking content, I read these poems slowly and filled the pages with marginalia. All of this felt very familiar, and when I got to the acknowledgments page at the very end of the book, I simply nodded “yes,” when I saw Lucie Brock-Broido’s name there. It takes years and years of reading and re-reading, but eventually, one does begin to understand poetic lineage on the page, without having to be told it first. I’m thrilled to have added Mai Der Vang to this strand of my own, personal poetics, and I know that Afterland will remain with me for a long time to come.


Posted by Sandy Longhorn