Review by Dong Li
(The Old Philosopher, by Vi Khi Nao, Nightboat Books, 2016)
This is a book of grief. “Once in a while a child fell through a well / And another child or two drowned in a swimming pool,” as the Viet Cong flooded the land and the fleeing began. The child “puked out pig’s intestinal debris, needles & threads, oxtails, hair,” how vividly messy and nauseating was the act of regression and repression. This is a book of strange ecstasy. Grief gathers puked-out words and groups them into families. The child becomes the old, if also wise, philosopher. Ecstasy arises, strangely. The child bakes “flour-woken clouds” on grass and buries snow. Her skin enigmatically writes and oxidizes into erotic darkness. Rubber trees pour out their arboreal nipples. Rain is rampant, so is sex, not a tear mentioned, only saliva keeps dripping from all the holes. There is a “semi-semiotic pitcher of sorrow.” There is a drop of rain that sits down to pray. The rain will not let up, grief goes on as words weave and wreathe, reminiscent of the child’s seamstress mother stitching a ripped life. No elocution helps, even god’s. The poems test and taste the edge of syntactical copulation and philosophical menstruation, as they reel and reveal an unspeakable tale of fugitives crossing, of the world riven by separation and alienation. As the child tucks itself away on the tongue of a banana leaf, as the old philosopher directs her gaze on the troubled world, words are naked again in rain, “in their veneer sense of homelessness.” There is no fix for grief. No paean to homelessness. Poems save no more. Only grief feels real and calmly cuts the linguistic throat. This is a book of throat-cutting grief.
Dong Li is a poet of the lost world.