When I've seen Bao Phi perform his poetry, his words lunge off the stage straight into my head and dance around in there for days. As a spoken-word artist, Phi has won multiple championships and performed on the biggest poetry stages in the country. "Sông I Sing" is his first published book of poems.
It was worth the wait. Even without his voice, his words are loud in all the right moments, and quiet when they need to be.
The book's dedication ("for my Asian American people") is also its declaration: Phi's poems explore the lives of Asian Americans as they stand in the shadow of a white-dominated society. Phi, who is Vietnamese and lives in Minneapolis, does not mince words. (The best poets never do, right?) With struggle comes violence, and his chronicling of it is plentiful -- from wars fought abroad to police shootings at home. But he can turn brutality into beautiful narrative on a dime. In "Everyday People" he writes:
"... when he was a boy, his mother / stepped on a land mine, it opened beneath her / like a thirsty flower unfolding, / his mother suddenly becoming a million red broken stars / falling."
The book's best chapter is "The Nguyens," character studies of people who share the common Vietnamese name. They are gay, straight, soldiers, dancers, victims of Hurricane Katrina. They don't fit snugly into stereotypes and couldn't be characters in a sitcom called "The Nguyens" (though Phi can be quite funny).
His empathy for these fractured lives is supreme. You get the feeling he would happily heal the wounds of injured comrades even if it meant opening new ones in his own soul. But for now his gift is his words. And whether they are written in a book or spoken onstage, once you hear them they will stay locked in your head, always dancing.
Tom Horgen is an A&E reporter at the Star Tribune.