ANGELINE KEK WRITES — When do we learn to live for ourselves and not others? How do we unlearn the adjustments we have been instructed to make to be deserving of genuine love, as if we are not deserving by default? After all, we are the experiences that we have sustained, the things people have done to us — through the act of peeling back we return to our original condition.
Come Clean (2021) is Joshua Nguyen’s second poetry collection, including poems from his first publication American Lục Bát for My Mother (2021). Lục Bát is a traditional Vietnamese poetry form, “lục” meaning “six” and “bát” meaning “eight,” referring to the measure of starting a poem with a six-syllable line and ending with an eight-syllable line. Lục Bát has a rich history of being enjoyed and practiced by Vietnamese people of all classes — Joshua Nguyen’s Vietnamese heritage abundantly colors the landscapes of Come Clean.
Opening with “March 4th,” a poem that details the seconds after the speaker’s birth, the speaker’s mother is a woman who has great hopes for her newborn. She has a strong desire to preserve pride and culture, understandably as an immigrant woman building a life in a foreign land. There is a pointed fixation on purity: “My son must be presentable to the world / My son, the world will try to bury you … You will be porcelain, jade … / You will be hair slicked back, skin clear & mouth compressed”. Intertwined with this preoccupation with cleanliness is a sense of pride in representing their Vietnamese heritage. The mother says to her oblivious child, “I hid a bottle of fish sauce in your crib. / Do not ever forget that I am your mother. / I will give you a clean life.”
Coming Clean is a journey of making peace with life and its uncertainty, cruelty, and flaws. Poems of sexual assault tinged with tones of confusion and shame are also present in the story. The author writes, “[I] learned there are two ways to be wanted, one being the pleasant calm you hoped for, the other: where all your will is taken.” One can also find stanzas of motherly love buried under cooking tips, such as, “My child, my love, a / little water can save you from / tiny shards in your thumb.” Many lines in the story reveal intimate thoughts about navigating the ever-changing labyrinth of human connections. All the while, the collection explores the relationship between the Asian identity in relation to fetishization, white saviors, the ‘American dream,’ and self-assurance.
The speaker’s first moments of life begin with a promise of purity. They return to cleanliness in pursuit of peace of mind after unpleasant experiences such as sexual assault: “When I get back home, I fold all my laundry / into neat pillars on my bed. I place my body into the washer, … I win when my stained teeth are all that’s left to wash.” If there is one thing to take from Come Clean, it is this: We are not tainted by the things that have happened to us — we are the parts we choose to claim.
Angeline Kek is a book reviewer and contributing staff writer for Asia Media International. As a recent graduate from LMU, she majored in English with a concentration in poetry and creative writing. She is interested in poetry and writings that are unhesitatingly honest.
Edited by book review editor-in-chief, Ella Kelleher.