Lưu Diệu Vân’s poetry asserts the feminine self within time. The poet winds her own clock. She, Self-Winding, the title of her fourth collection, reflects the tensions between public and private, tradition and renewal, past and present, hardcore pragmatism and poignant romanticism. It also reflects on history, and histories, of war and immigration.
The narrative compression, mysterious wording, and dramatic irony in Lưu Diệu Vân’s poetry remind you of fractured fairytales, blues ballads, tragic novels with tongue-in-cheek endings, and all those moody, pregnant moments in the films of Wong Kar-wai.
Lưu Diệu Vân’s poems are about women submitting to, or ambiguously subverting, their narratives. The poems are both tragic and comic. Camp mixed with pathos. For example, “My Stepmother’s Shoes” is about a woman who crosses an entire ocean to join her lover who lives in a cold climate, bringing with her a suitcase full of summer shoes. She later finds out that this lover is only “a sweet talker/[who] didn’t even have a bank account.” But the Cinderella ending comes years later, with a twist. In her seventies, this stepmother finds herself “handcuffed” to happiness and won’t leave her bed! The word handcuffed is disturbingly cheeky —is she toying with the reader’s expectations of a happy feminist ending, or is she saying that enslavement becomes liberation when submitted willingly in an S&M context? We will never know, because we still exist in a world stranded between shame and fulfillment, silence and indecision. This world, while offering many advancements for women, still is full of taboos, still imposes rules and regulations on their bodies, in both the public and private realms.
The push-pull between tradition and progress, weakness and strength, is the liveliest, most incisive aspect of Lưu Diệu Vân’s poetry. In “Premier Funeral,” while a Vietnamese grandfather is enlightened enough to confer upon his beloved granddaughter the radical “privilege of the first-born, absent son,” he however succumbs to a seemingly inevitable and most cliché of endings. The grandfather’s death, by opium addiction, is the typical fate befallen many Confucian intellectuals. While a common Vietnamese woman’s destiny is to take care of her family, an educated Vietnamese man’s freedom is simply his ability to escape both private and public responsibilities.
There is no real assimilation for a cultural transplant, as her fractured experience has turned her into Frankenstein’s monster. The romance celebrated in Hollywood classic films, of well-scrubbed teenagers hot-rodding down antiseptic American streets while classic rock blaring on the radio, becomes a domestic horror tableau in Lưu Diệu Vân’s poem, something that could have been captured by the photographer Diane Arbus. In “Scent-Free Speed,” an Asian father, “bitter of warfare and cesspit cleanup,” guns a Mustang Thunderbird through dilapidated neighborhoods while heaping verbal abuse on his family. His teenage daughter, “late in menstruating,” is desperate to be an adult. Lost in her private romance inspired by a cosmetic perfume ad, yet also trapped in the horrendous present, the girl feels drenched by the summer heat and rashy from dime store fishnet stockings.
Despite Lưu Diệu Vân’s frequent use of humor and irony, there is also a deep romanticism in her poetry, reminding you of the three tenets of love—faith, hope, and charity, celebrated in Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians. Let’s all hear the very moving closure of her poem, “Of Dust and Us”:
My hand gives you uncontaminated confidence to hold yourself accountable
flashes to ashes
The country house with see-through ceiling reappears to the south
Where my vagrant body always points
And yours, fearlessly near.
To read Lưu Diệu Vân’s poetry, is to see “through a glass, darkly; but then face to face.”
Đinh Từ Bích Thúy
Đinh Từ Bích Thúy is the coeditor of the Vietnamese literary magazine Da Màu, editor-at-large for Asymptote Journal, freelance critic, and literary translator. She was a 2020 writer-in-resident at Woodlawn-Pope Leighey House in Alexandria, Virginia, and a 2018 scholar at the Bread Loaf Translators’ Conference in Vermont. Her works have appeared in NPR, NBC, Da Màu, Asymptote, Prairie Schooner, Manoa, Michigan Quarterly Review, Rain Taxi Review of Books, among others. She is based in the Washington DC Metropolitan Area, USA.