In this striking first collection of
poems, the grainy strangeness of the modern world is transformed into a place at
once knowable and enduring. Mông-Lan conveys the certainty that even when the
world stops making sense, decency and beauty somehow survive. From Saigon to San
Francisco, she combines the earthly and the ecstatic, the animal and the
sublime, to create lyrics that tempt and haunt.
"Welcome to a poetic voice that
represents no less than a manifestation of soul. In Mông-Lan’s debut book, she
has taken on the daunting responsibility of representing the Vietnamese nation
and culture, via imagery, consciousness, and memory. Hers is a stunning
experiment and a historical imperative."
"In Asian tradition, poetry and
visual art go hand in hand, with the collaboration of work, image, and
calligraphy. Mông-Lan’s first book renews this tradition for American poetry,
and with a startling subject matter. Her poems and drawings dealing with Viet
Nam reflect the awe, the anger, and the mourning of the expatriate who returns
to the country of her birth. Brilliantly exact observation of people and places
here is paradoxical evidence that this land is no longer entirely her own. We
sense that she also values what she brings from her adoptive culture–a new
language, a new aesthetic, and the conviction that a woman artist has special
insights to offer on the subject of armed conflict and its aftermath. From
visual beauty, human suffering, and verbal inventiveness, Mông-Lan stakes out a
poetic territory that is completely her own."
is a remarkably accomplished poet. Always her poems are deft, extremely graceful
in the way words move, and in the cadence that carries them. One is moved by the
articulate character of ‘things seen,’ the subtle shifting of images, and the
quiet intensity of their information. Clearly she is a master of the art."
From Publishers Weekly
Song of the Cicadas by Mong-Lan, Massachusetts,
2001, 82p, $13.95 paper
"Tide pools wait/ for the stone-eating sea," "children play mindlessly in satellite/ shores," a Vietnamese "dialect is a giddy/ fish" and "monkeys howl the illogical twilight" in Mong-Lan's intriguing sequences about places in Southeast Asia and North America. Mong-Lan takes her geographic imagination far beyond the space of a single ethnic heritage: scenes and sketches of Southeast Asia complement similarly structured poems about Mexico, whose tropics provide vivid, organic-seeming symbols. The Asian sequences concentrate instead on people "villagers commuting from the countryside," Saigon citizens, kids, a new mother and the whole strange (to American eyes) constellation of "A New Viet Nam." Mong-Lan, whose family came to America from Vietnam in the '70s and who is now a Stegner fellow at Stanford University, explores all the above subjects and, crucially, her speaker's reactions to them in juxtaposed fragments, speculations and phrases arrayed on the field of each page in a manner that suggests the influence of Charles Olson and Adrienne Rich. Though the poems can have the too-even keel of reportage, they also ascend to heights of electric oddity: one poem finds new things to say about "The Golden Gate Bridge," where "the wind's mood and resolutions/ erase tendrils/ that grow/ from the sea (to engrave around it/ have that as a dish/ you could eat)." Readers who seek elaborate structures or an unerring musical ear may be may be disappointed in these impressionistic, accretive works. Those who seek ethnography, good travel writing, vivid phrases or durable images, on the other hand, will find much of this debut a worthwhile trip.
American Review, by Vince Gotera. January-February 2002
Song of the
Cicadas by Mong-Lan, Massachusetts, 2001, 82p, $13.95 paper
Mong-Lan's pen-and-inks of Viet Nam appear throughout, and the cover features a
lovely photograph she took of boys framed in magenta light by an iron-latticed
window against the green of Viet Nam. These exquisite poems remind me of
Japanese floating-world prints, with lines and images sprinkled across pages,
bridging Viet Nam and the US in startling beauty.
by Johanna Masse,
Song of the
82 Pages Illustrated
Vietnam is not a
pretty place to be, according to this talented writer, who emigrated to America
at a young age after the fall of Saigon. She finds that the United States
has its own share of problems as well.
From the banks of the Red River in Vietnam to the heights of the Golden Gate
Bridge, Mong-Lan's poetry evokes the vision of an international soul.
Images like women doing their washing in the river, a San Francisco professor,
and a suicidal mandolin player show how Mong-Lan's life experience lends her
poetic voice a multi-textured reading of her many worlds.
In the "The Long Bien Bridge," Mong-Lan graphically describes the hard life of
much of the Vietnamese population around the Red River: "Her older sister
/ who refuses to marry him / sits near the bridge amassing / vegetables for sale
/ mounds of mint / hills of water spinach / guavas bananas ' the poor man's
fruit' / swords of sugarcane / flopping scales like huge tonges / ready to
weigh." The poem's images--buffalo in the water while children play and
women wash clothes, bicycle commuters crossing the bridge--convey a sense of
rich life, where resolution carries the day.
This poem contrasts with "The Golden Gate Bridge," which describes the bridge's
suspension cables and the water underneath with cold precision: "above the
bridge / the universe of red rust / thicker than wrists metal cords / pass us
lax or hasty as the years / yearly repainted." The poem also addresses an
unnamed suicide, who chose to end life at the bridge.
Other poems, including "Grotto" and "Lake," suggest that Mong-Lan mourns the
passing of pre-industrial (pre-war) Vietnam, and retains some ambivalence about
leaving her country. Her Vietnam is fraught with hardship, particularly
for women, but is also beautiful in its co-existence with natuare and the
dignity of the hands-on laborer. The title poem sequence, "Song of the
Cicadas," about the end of a romance, reads: "then I wake up cold / you
are nowhere near / but in my lungs ripped out rushing for air / must I stop this
voice / is this voice the land's?"
Song of the Cicadas won the Juniper Prize for a first collection of
poetry. Given the breadth of her work and her highly descriptive voice,
Mong-Lan will surely make more waves in the world of American letters.
Examiner, Asian American Journal, Volume 28, Number 20, October
17-November 6, 2001.
landscape with words," by nhien nguyen. (click on thumbnail below, then
click on bottom right)
Best American Poetry of 2002
watermark, vietnamese american poetry & prose
edited by Barbara Tran, Monique T.D. Truong, &
Luu Truong Khoi
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, 30-3-2003. Vietnamese Language. Click on thumbnail.
Dallas Morning News, "Double the fun with genre-bridging poets," February
Why is the Edge Always Windy?
Tupelo Press, 2005
Purchase the book now at
Amazon.com, or Tupelo Press.
“what you’ve lived
through you are,” says Mong-Lan in “Coast,” one of the early poems in
this beautiful, spellbinding book, Why is the Edge Always Windy? One
should not be mislead by the title into thinking Mong-Lan’s work will be airy.
The lyricism of her writing sings not of the ethereal but of a hard land;
her work speaks not of arrested moments but of the tectonic force of
history, which, moving at the pace of geological time, presses cultures
against each other, folds moments over each other, edges everywhere and
always exposed. Indeed, Mong-Lan’s are poems of exposure. Reading them is
Mong-Lan's Why Is The Edge Always Windy? is a stunning book that
turns our "era of exile" into one of lyric possession, the impulses to
lament and to praise whirling together into a bittersweet music. I'm amazed
at how these poems hold the complexity and contradiction of a global world
view that spans from Hanoi to New York, from Chiapas to San Francisco, while
still striking notes of intimacy and making formally beautiful sense.
--Alison Hawthorne Deming
International Examiner, April/May 2006
Why is the Edge Always Windy? (poems)
Dorset, VT: Tupelo Press, 2005
86 pages, pb
Review by Tarisa A.M. Matsumoto
To call the poems in Mong-Lan's Why is the Edge Always Windy?
impressionist or surreal would be to reduce them to the stereotypical categories
in which all writing so condense, so image-based and so seemingly disconnected
is placed. And it would be easy to say that her poems create emotionally-charged
moods and subtle colors, because they do. But again, that would be too easy, too
disregarding of the depth of Mong-Lan's work.
The sparse structure of the poems may jar readers. Rarely do Mong-Lan's lines
begin on the same margin. Instead, her lines move across the page, creating gaps
and new margins, spaces and time. These purposeful lines add weight to the
poems. Her poems are not poems of blocked stanzas and dense words, but are
sea in the sky
striking obliquely army of light
the aquamarine houses are ghosts
water steals over skewed floors
only this life
The result of these constantly moving lines is two-fold. First, the spacing
allows Mong-Lan to control how we read her poems—we know where to breathe, where
to change gears, how much time to wait until we move to the next line, which
images go together. Second, the gaps she creates allows us time to answer the
question she poses in the title: Why is the Edge Always Windy?
Is the edge the country of Mong-Lan's birth, Vietnam? She writes, "Saigon's
foot is bound/the city a person with amputated limb/has feet that strain for
movement." Perhaps the edge is New York: "ghosts of America roam/land of
fast food/joints defined by movement/herds of taxi cabs apartments too expensive
to rent." Or San Francisco: "The Golden Gate Bridge from my window/is a
red of smothered crabs/cooked in dreamfog/savage-haired/drummers in the park
beat on." It is as if, with her careful lines and pauses, Mong-Lan is
probing for the answer. And maybe, with the breadth of her images, she is giving
us room to ponder the question as well.
another generation, by David Burleigh, The Japan Times
IS THE EDGE ALWAYS WINDY? Poems by Mong-Lan. Dorset, Vermont: Tupelo Press, 86
pps., 2005, $ 16.95 (paper).
Despite the long engagement between Vietnam and the West, in the throes and in
the aftermath of war, there have not yet been many literary consequences, at
least in English. Monique Trong's imaginative novel, "The Book of Salt" (2003),
was an interesting contribution, though it was set in France. The work of the
Vietnamese-American poet Mong-Lan may be viewed as a useful exploration of this
"Rush Hour," set in Hanoi, she notes: "my parents walked these streets / some
forty years ago." Later she provides a sketch of swirling traffic, one of
several drawings that decorate this attractive volume. It is left to the reader
to connect the broken utterances of the poems: "hidden motion between knife and
shadow." But we are in no doubt that the poet carries the past within her, as
she says in "Trail": "I can correctly say this an era of exile . . . I speak of
nothing no ideas just Vietnam motherland inside us."
North American Review's Vince Gotera writes about Why is The Edge
"Mong-Lan's poetry reminds me of Whitman,
especially in 'O New York' which addresses 9/11 and its immediate anti-Romantic
after-effect, as well as her treatment of war's aftermath in Viet Nam. She also
reminds me of e. e. cummings; lines peppered across a wide page in eloquent
visual prosody. Both M-L and e. e. are visual artists who treat their words as a
palette of intimate hues painted on a paper canvas. In these poems, the styles
of Walt, the good gray poet and e. e. are reused, recreated with a femmin(ist/ine)
(land/mind)scape of emotion and sensibility that is all Mong-Lan's own—bringing
together Paris, San Francisco, Ha Noi, Switzerland, and New York in a
much-needed global synthesis and symbiosis."
"34th Buenos Aires International Book Fair: Tango, Tangoing: poems & art by Mong-Lan"
Review by Sam Walker, for the argentimes, 8 May 2008, edition #37.
In Tango, Tangoing, Mong-Lan --Juniper Prize-winning poet, writer, painter, photographer and professional Tango teacher -- fully combines her paintings and her poetry for the first time.
Having left her native Vietnam on the last day of the evacuation of Saigon in 1975, Mong-Lan moved to the US where she grew up. She is the author of Song of the Cicadas, which won her the prestigious Juniper Prize, Why is the Edge Always Windy? And Love Poem to Tofu & Other Poems. Her work has been widely accredited and has been published in Best American Poetry, Best Poems from 30 Years of the Pushcart Prize and other anthologies. Her credentials as a tanguera are stunning, having taught tango for many years, from San Francisco to Thailand.
Tango, Tangoing is a sensual combination of tango, poetry and artwork. Her art comes from a deep, organic love of Latin dance, and she has an acute sense of what tango is really about. She was here in Argentina during the economic crash, when as she said, “even while the world was crashing down, the milonga carried on.”
The poetry, like the artwork that accompanies it, is free-hand, fluid and dynamic. She adopts a free form, or ‘open field,’ which compliments the natural pauses and flow of the lines. “I use words as paint.” She says, and likes to experiment with the form; “it’s very important to be playful in poetry.” As a result, the poetry moves swiftly, changing directions and cutting back across the surface, much like the dance that it describes.
Her poetry is enhanced by a montage of prose and Spanish text. “I think people understand more when poetry is written in prose.” She explains, rather enigmatically. And, it’s true; the prose adds a great deal to the poetry, and clarifies some of its more complicated gestures. The Spanish phrases are excerpts from tango songs; they effectively set the moody, tango atmosphere. The fluidity and dynamism of the abstract paintings that accompany the text add to the sensation.
According to the poet, the book is ‘a seismology.’ This seismology (the study of earthquakes) insinuates the passion and emotion of a tango dance, using poetry instead of graphs and measurements. It is a study on the earth-shaking effects of tango.
Tango, Tangoing offers an astute and refreshing look at real tango. So much is written and said about Argentine tango; here is a new and complete way to get to grips with more than just the steps and the music of this dance; the greatest of Argentine institutions.
Mong-Lan will be reading at the Buenos Aires International Book Fair on 10th May 8pm – 8:30 pm at the US Embassy Stand.
She has an exhibition of her paintings and photography at Porteño y Bailarín, Riobamba 345. It opens with a milonga, on 10th May at 10.30 pm.
From El Tangauta, Buenos Aires' tango magazine, ¨La dimensión poética del baile.¨ Review by Carlos Bevilacqua, on Mong-Lan´s new book, Tango, Tangoing: Poetry & Art. June 2008. Link to Article in El Tangauta with English Translation.
"Mong-Lan: Una artista de Vietnam enamorada del 2 x 4 (An artist from Vietnam who fell in love with tango)." Article about Mong-Lan's One-Woman Art exhibition of Paintings & Photographs, at Porteño y Bailarín, Riobamba 345, Buenos Aires, Argentina, which runs from June until December 2008. The location of the exhibition is in a milonga, which opens at 10:30pm until 3:30 am Tuesdays and Sundays. It opens most days from 9:00 pm for dance classes. The bilingual article below was published in the magazine, La Milonga Argentina, June 2008.
From TimeOut Buenos Aires, 2008
If it's murder at the milonga, why not curl up with a good tango book instead? Ruth-Ellen Davis picks out two of the best.
There are many ways to experience tango, from the dazzling razzmatazz of a show, to the intimate airs of a neighbourhood milonga, to tentative limb-waving in a dance class. Or you can simply pick up a book.
The latest publication from celebrated US poet and artist Mong-Lan, Tango, Tangoing: Poems & Art (www.monglan.com), is a beautifully crafted collection of poetry and artwork, capturing the flavours of Argentinian tango through three sections of free verse interwoven with fluid pen and ink drawings. 'Poetry is the highest form of verbal and written expression, and dance is the highest form of movement,' explains the Juniper Prize-winning author. 'One could say dance is the poetry of motion, and poetry the dance of words on the page.'
BA is a familiar place for Mong-Lan who visits for months at a time purely for her beloved tango scene - the references to BA's tensions and history in her haunting poetry and drawings testify to her insider knowledge. Marina Palmer became addicted to it, a compulsion she chronicles in her bestseller Kiss and Tango. If you've swallowed the myth that tango is just an extremely complex form of dry humping, all codes and no consummation, this racy memoir may well make you cough it back up again. Sample quote: 'As for [Frank's] body, it was to die for . . . The guy smelled of sex. My nose could not get enough of his armpits, nor of the other places where it went to seek its olfactory treasures. And while we're on the subject of these other places, they were as smooth as his dancing. That's because he shaves down there. Talk about being a pro!"
You'll never listen to Carlos Gardel in quite the same way again . . .