Not Here

by Major Jackson

Any reader who encounters Hieu Minh Nguyen’s second collection, Not Here, will likely be struck by the intense sense of longing and hunger that pulses at the center of his poems—the search for human companionship and raw, physical encounters as a means to self-love and social acceptance, as in “Hosting,” when the speaker says, “I got on my knees & offered him / the easy currency of my mouth—,” or in “Type II” (“Goddamnit / look at me! Look at me in the old way / in this new light”). A series of poems titled “White Boy Time Machine” works to exorcise the demons of self-hatred and racial inferiority, and though the speaker occasionally looks outward at whiteness with envy, as in “B. F. F.” (“I’ll start with Amanda Elias / & how I thought, in order to be worthy / of desire, I had to wear her skin”), he is also persistently self-reflexive: “I can’t say for sure / but I think I’m bored with loneliness or at least the music it supplies: bodies thrashing.” From where does all this originate? The speaker recalls bitter memories, from being molested as a child to being punished for his queerness: “When his father caught us, two flies drowning / in a dish of honey, he dragged us / onto the porch. Made us lie there / while he urinated on our backs.” Rather than using language to obfuscate or conceal, Nguyen goes directly to the source of the damage in the speaker’s history: “If I’m anything, I’m a boy inside his mother’s body / shoveling coal into a screaming red engine.”

This review originally appeared in American Poets, Spring-Summer 2018.