Minnesotan Bao Phi opens his propulsive second collection with a primer on the Vietnamese word “ma,” which means different things depending on the speaker’s tone. He writes, “Vietnamese people have always been spoken word poets.”
As a champion slam poet, Phi modulates his voice to evoke humor, rage and grief. On the page, none of that is lost. He masterfully manipulates accessible language into rhythmically dense lines that limn the complexities of race in the United States at a profoundly personal level. He uses his line breaks to control the reader’s pace so they can hear the performance behind each poem.
Phi’s parents risked their lives to get their children out of Vietnam during the war, only to find themselves in “this country made of/crosshairs.” “Fresh off the boat, straight into the housing projects,” where they faced racist vandalism, violence and slurs that needed “no translator in order to wound.”
Phi, who is program director at the Loft Literary Center, writes poignantly about the toxic accretion of internalized racism: “My dad had a son who thought he was just another gook/who didn’t know what caused him pain.” As an Asian man, he feels “invisible, taught to believe in our own unattractiveness.” He finds some measure of visibility as a writer. Without poetry he “could have been, a ghost haunting the margin — /no words to describe himself.”
As a father, he struggles with how to raise “an Asian child in a country … that will hate her unless she assimilates” while fearing she inherited the legacy of his family’s trauma in “ghosts made of gunpowder and spilled oil and jet stream [that] live in her tiny muscles.”
“Thousand Star Hotel” is equal parts heartbreaking and bitingly funny. In response to a woman saying she is not attracted to Asian men, he quips, “It’s okay./ I’m not attracted to racism.” In one satirical poem, he imagines Asian-Americans being interrogated at the entrance to basketball games “to prove they are an authentic fan of basketball and not just jumping on a Jeremy Lin bandwagon.” One slip-up and the entire race will be “demoted back to table tennis.”
Phi’s linguistic virtuosity is astonishing, especially when set against moments of stunning directness as when he says to his daughter, “I just want a better world for you to be a small part of.” Readers will encounter knockout lines such as: “Unlike our throats, when our hearts howl they never grow hoarse.”
This volume is a must-read for readers seeking a greater understanding of race, but also for any reader who has children or parents, experienced heartbreak, or just loves the sound of finely wrought lines.
Elizabeth Hoover is a poet in Milwaukee, Wis.
Thousand Star Hotel
By: Bao Phi.
Publisher: Coffee House Press, 110 pages, $16.95.
Event: Book launch 7 p.m. July 12, Loft Literary Center, 1011 Washington Av. S., Mpls., $5-$10.