Jennifer Mackenzie Reviews Lưu Diệu Vân


M of December
by Lưu Diệu Vân
Vagabond Press, 2016

Reading M of December is rather like going to a spectacular exhibition at a gallery where images of all kind swirl, proclaim, collide and re-form – the viewer takes the opportunity of a brief leave to attempt to come up with a coherent response. Having gone into this gallery, and exited on a number of occasions, what I have come up with is a response to the formed fragmentation of its individual poems, travelling through discordancy via the robust vigour of forceful lines and sharp elisions.

In the first section of the collection, ‘December’, individual poems read as constructed assemblages with dazzling juxtapositions of imagery. In ‘B.C. bees’, perception is presented as molten, contested, as chthonically and chronologically unsettled:

the fire has eyes that glide through lies
beyond B.C. and cunning centuries
the sage offers secrets to the universe
seeing is a plague
the distance between heaven and death is a U turn

The artist at work then makes a selection process by constructing a verbal installation:

each century’s special promotion
written in the DNA of people making headlines
the telling bees dash for the wedlocked bedrock
like thumbtacks on a topsoil cork board
sucking out stories as big as Vesuvius’ pumice
mortality preserves in conceding hives

This sense of poem as installation, or constructed artefact, is also on display in ‘micro exhibition’, where images of the artefact and that of the natural world play off each other, reflecting both boldness and uncertainty – wonderment in the faith of what the poet has created. The poem starts out with a strong image:

a religious artefact stands imposingly, sanctimoniously reflecting
the recondite sea beneath

The imposing nature of the image could be seen to conflate into the act of perception itself:

the glass incrustation patiently collects black and white
stones of uncertainty, downplays the six senses, magnifies the

This culminates in the final verse, where the act of writing itself presents ambivalently:

on top of the mountain lays a hesitating temple of ink, half
wanting to leap, half keeping hold of subsistence
Essentially, Vân works herself out of hesitation; boldly placing the natural and the constructed to achieve a momentary interlocking of effect.

In ‘imaginary holy friend’, the robust somehow distils itself into an evocation of lyric, socially sanctioned violence. Here, the gendered de-formations of ‘people playing god’ merge into a joint reflection of the abused body and nature, with the short lines being particularly effec-tive:

god frolicking people
elongated neck binding
people playing god
moon-blade foot binding
slippers stumped by lotus ponds
punctured meat of the bony flute
meshes pain
filtered cries
hair side-parted
slope of decisiveness
gossamer crease hidden in plain terrain
goiter of the soil
urethra of the deep
mouth of the inflamed
lung of the unsung

a favourite blacksmith of mortal parts
to play Operation with in the bedridden darkness
The poem ‘inside an armoured chrysalis’ pursues the vision of metaphysical clash in its expressionistic and apocalyptic tableau of war:

the cloak of war rips open like a caterpillar’s final grip on innocence
seas of poppies barrage from rising towers

Its imagery is strong and confrontational, for instance: ‘stench of fresh fir’, ‘molecules of gassed up bodies’ and ‘thinning polyskies of barebones and sulking skulls’. The delicacy (and the shorter line) seen in ‘imaginary holy friend’ effectively returns in the final two lines, playing out the metamorphic import of ‘chrysalis and caterpillar’:

the rest of us frantically disperse
in search of a butterfly that can cry

The section, ‘December’, continues with an enthralling juxtaposition of imagery from nature, the world of objects, and the body, all morphing into each other in unexpected combinations. ‘coiling forest’ presents a take on the Cinderella story, of ‘tales of a princess always needing rescues / of a prince.’ Vân portrays a set in motion, in which ‘a vanishing forest [is] coiling into itself’ and ‘doors are pushing upwardly silently within the forest like wild / mushrooms.’ The poet abruptly segues from this protean vision, into savage reflection:

Cinderella never made it
that last second of the forest’s final new year’s eve
when no one can own sadness
but merely takes care of it for the next victim in line

In a similar vein, ‘melancholia of caramel afternoons’ moves from the mythical to the contemporary with spectacular elision:

the night’s cologne caging in
missing hinges from its macho wings
on the wall of memory
Sabrina arrives through the urgent ringtone

The second section of the collection, ‘M’ is akin to work seen in Poems of Lưu Diệu Vân, Lưu Mêlan & Nhã Thuyên (Vagabond Press, 2013), extending Vân’s poetry both in theme and imagery, nailing the acerbic line. ‘to a younger poet self’ and ‘naïve writer’ respectively look back in sardonic reappraisal: of, firstly, an early love affair; and, secondly, of early flurries onto the literary circuit. In ‘to a younger poet self’, the ‘Big Heartbreak’ is framed with literary reference:

all your twenty-two self-pities
a fatal infatuation for Rumi and e.e.cummings
insomnias yet of age
jolts of maiden pain
love smog tints grays of verses
laments vicariously postaged to Neruda

Its references morph into an effectively crafted take on writing and the body:

you shatter into creation
the feminist phoenix way
riding in the dark on the biro’s horn
rendering poisoned sensations savable
chastity’s optional to tame metaphors
you jump through a needle’s eye
avoiding the thread’s pull

‘naïve writer’ also sees the collection open itself up to some narrative savagery. In Vân’s view, literary PR appears as the selling of self, where ‘the writer’s skin must be as thick as their copious flows of / topless appearance on the fictional bed’, this ‘literary reception / bed, on which not a single space is deserted’, from which the speaker is suddenly excluded, ‘forever trapped outside’.

‘M’ explores the evolving world of feminist critique, drawing on history, culture and patriarchy, putting the poet’s skills at dramatic scene-setting to good effect. ‘feminine reconciliation’ reads as a pithy riff on popular magazines and their penchant for advice columns: ;what a woman wants is shoes that go with every mood / what she needs is an attitude that can wear many hats.’ In ‘the bindi escape’, a living deity leaves ritual behind:

12 days of purifying in isolation
she wipes the red sun
belated dreams off her charcoal-rimmed eyes
the spirit vacates the body
light escaping between her remoistenable thighs
two entities lie languidly
in the corona of midnight innocence
making bolts out of peepal with burgeoning tongues

the bindi’s making a scandalous cross
towards freedom

In ‘here comes the truth’ the rituals of a traditional upbringing are laid waste by sudden flight at the end of the Vietnam War, when the refrain of ‘White Christmas’ signalled the urgency to evacuate:
she was not privy to
the monk’s staged self-immolation
White Christmas and Bing Crosby’s common key
the entire village fumbling in the red land

The poem concludes with an epiphany of arrival in the United States, where the speaker ‘got all the answers from the immaculate self-cleaning airport toilets / no P. M. of W. C. forcing a tip from her.’

‘my would be sister’ reflects on this flight, and the alternative histories it represents. Growing up as ‘an au fait young woman’, she sees her home country as a place where ‘female laborers’ [sic] take ‘routine / beatings from their husbands like cultural norms.’ However, ‘if the night-sea escape had failed’ she might be, at 15, ‘prime age for pre-arranged marriage, lying leisurely on the hammock in the coconut grove.’

Another particularly strong poem in the collection, ‘on the 7thfloor’ skillfully employs the trope of a movie shot to suggest dark emotions within a contained and eroticised space – the theatre of the room:

the ceiling fan’s blades decapitate the plump moon of the 7th floor
flashes of light contaminate the eerie air
absolute silence
spirit possessed with an obvious sixth sense
a woman
plunging a needle through each fingernail
sewing a secret lover’s name on the inside of her longing thighs
without uttering a cry

Although issues of gender predominate in the second section of the collection, it is not an exclusive preoccupation. Among poems of a different timbre and subject, ‘the cloud hunter’ is a delightful, witty response to pareidoia, as the poem transforms from observations of cultural predilections: ‘the Vietnamese see a pixy dragon / the Chinese see a bad omen’, to being a somewhat rueful celebration of poetry:

I am proud of my trade regardless
protecting the hangover of our fading faction
there are so few of us left
surviving barely on the illicitly traded puff of time
and in order to avoid detection
we now call ourselves poets

Overall, this lively and impressive collection showcases feminist humour shaping the sharp cut of the poetic line. It sees Lưu Diệu Vân extending her range, and presenting a number of compelling poems, which invite rewarding re-reading.

*Jennifer Mackenzie is the author of Borobudur (Transit Lounge, 2009), republished in Indonesia as Borobudur and Other Poems (Lontar, 2012) and has been busy promoting it at festivals and conferences in Asia. She is now working on a number of projects, including an exploration of poetry and dance, ‘Map/Feet’. Her participation in the Irrawaddy Festival was supported by a writer’s travel grant from the Australia Council for the Arts.

**Taken from Cordite Poetry Review at


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