Red Juice: Poems 1998-2008

Nguyen’s second volume from Wave Books collects work from the first decade of the poet’s prolific career, bringing together poems from two previous small-press collections (and several more chapbooks) to form a welcome archive of Nguyen’s voice. With a talent for the associative leap and for “telling it slant,” Nguyen crafts brief, arresting poems full of mind-bending inversions: “I’m aiming my mouth / for apple pie,” she writes, shifting our expected focus with the grace of an experimental cinematographer. In contradiction—“Magic lifts my hair     (That’s the wind)”—she finds an improved reality: the wind is magic and magic is the wind in the Wonderland of Nguyen’s mostly unpunctuated lines. Though she shies away from traditional narrative, the mosaic details of these poems do offer a record of a time and culture. “Strangely touched that Vili and Mary Kay tied the knot,” she admits in “Strangely Touched,” a poem that concludes, “The phone rings / ‘It’s me’ ‘I love you’”—offering a gesture (entirely private, unexplained, yet also universal) that captures the joy of Nguyen’s work. So much is strangely touching in just this manner. Each poem is a moment, recorded and enacted, an opportunity to step outside our usual experience of consciousness. There’s also plenty of humor and few tidily reducible truths. After all, “Life’s message / is life     an excellent / practical joke.”

This book review originally appeared in American Poets, Fall-Winter 2014.