In her debut poetry collection, Dear Diaspora, Susan Nguyen engages us in a conversation on grief and ecstasy, and how those two seemingly juxtaposed experiences are intrinsically linked. Winner of Prairie Schooner’s Book Prize in Poetry, Dear Diaspora was published in 2021 by the University of Nebraska Press. Nguyen is exploring grief as it’s related to erasure: the body as a landscape for trauma and how memory still relates to the ecstasy experienced by Suzi, Nguyen’s third-person speaker who is navigating a late 90’s–early 2000’s American experience of girlhood—a child of the Vietnamese diaspora.
Nguyen deploys a masterful use of form in order to relay the tone of her poems. The “Suzi” poems tend to be prosaic, eliciting a recollection of memory, both nostalgic and full of a clarity that can only be achieved in a sort of meditative hindsight. In “Suzi Searches for Ecstasy,” the speaker is recalling a time where Suzi is negotiating the experience of sex with a boy to ecstasy as a feeling. The second part of the poem reiterates the title and goes on to expose ecstasy as something that can be provided by the self and nature, in this case, the moon:
“Suzi searches for ecstasy/hopes she’ll find it in her own bedroom where the curtains flap in the month of July,/where she is free to watch her own body/where she can spread her fingers to touch the wet light of the moon”
There is an exquisite dance between the privacy of the bedroom and the exploration of the feminine body; the moon here works well to represent feminine self-pleasure and the ecstasy that can be fulfilled in the light of one’s own room, alone.
We see repetition of two titles throughout the collection: “Letter to the Diaspora” and “You Google Vietnam.” An epistolary approach is used in the “Letter to the Diaspora” poems, of
which there are four. We see the theme of the American dream: memory as it relates to language and the body, the erasure of identity as time seeks to whittle away monumental ancestral trauma. There are many questions to be asked of the diasporic experience and Nguyen crafts them each with thoughtful consideration. She asks: “Does memory eat the body?” or “What if: memory is the light you swallow?” By keeping with the same title, we can see the complex multiplicities a word like diaspora carries with it. Nguyen exemplifies the necessity in exposing grand narratives and seeking out the minute differences in each experience, as no two tales of grief (or ecstasy) are the same.
There is a luminosity to Nguyen’s images, her use of green as the color of her ecstasy in “Grief as a Question:” where she lists things that glow green, like “electric energy drink” or “praying mantis.” The poem uses enjambment to create a list of green ecstasies, but we also get longer, powerful lines such as:
“caterpillars taking over roads and sidewalks, placed in jars covered in Saran Wrap with poked holes for air, a twig and some grass”
She takes good care to expose grief as “ordinary” or mundane, in a way that is in a conversation with ecstasy as another ordinary thing, though something that moves faster through the body.
Dear Diaspora is an exquisite curation of one woman’s journey to unearth the sadness and grief that is conceived out of war, while not turning away from the celebration of survival. This collection challenges the notion that we cannot know happiness without suffering, equally, we cannot know grief without ecstasy.
Alexandria Machado is a graduate student studying English at Bridgewater State University and a writer living in the Boston area. Their poems and essays have appeared in Boshemia, Boog City, The Merrimack Review, and other publications.