Sometimes, reading a poet for the first time is like meeting a person: the first impression is defining. That is what Paul Tran’s debut is like. A queer, transgender Vietnamese American – such labelling scarcely serves as an introduction – their presence on the page is instantly dramatic: there is a gorgeous sensuality to the writing but a reason for readers to stay alert, to be on guard. A story of sexual abuse is unfolding – Tran was raped in their first year at college – and this is a complicated, nonspecific confessional that extends to abuse of Tran’s mother and abuse endured in childhood, underpinned by an intense quality of performance at every turn. All the Flowers Kneeling might not convince you as a title (the literal gardener in me objects) but, even within the fey wording, there is an embattled supplication to which you find yourself paying attention.
The collection opens with Orchard of Knowing, an encounter based on the story of the Buddha and the brigand who collected 1,000 human fingers – in a bid to be allowed home from exile – before being converted. There is an imperative clarity to it and the line that stands out is: “when you detach from your received idea of purpose”. Tran’s own work is filled with purpose yet with a threat of self-erasure ever-present. There is a momentum, a thespian verve that does not mask the work’s integrity. There is courage in their ongoing confrontation with pain. One of the questions that arises is: can trauma be contained by form – and how? In the book’s most impressive 13-poem sequence, I See Not Stars But Their Light Reaching Across the Distance Between Us, the acrostic is meticulously reconfigured. Each poem is 13 lines long and each line contains 13 words. If you read each poem vertically, you can collect a complete sentence as you read the first word of every line. The last line of the poem then dictates the following poem as the form is repeated.
These poems are flamboyant in content, yet their craftsmanship is as discreet as invisible mending: you will not see the stitches unless you seek them. And it is invisible mending, in the fullest sense, that Tran does best. There is no expectation that poetry will bring conspicuous resolution. It is more subtle. The avoidance of the sonnet is in itself a resistance to completion (damage is not about happy endings). Tran’s use of “love” is especially insecure, most often, as in I See Not Stars…, a question:
Relieving myself of my wish for the if in the middle of life, was I wrong
Then to believe that I could love someone else? Tell me
What love is to a survivor. Tell me love, like voice, can be wrung from violence
The unpicking of “if” in life and “voice” in violence is an exerting of control over language – where control elsewhere is elusive. A superb and ungovernable poem about their conception, Provenance, begins with their mother, in a lavender dress, answering a pounding on the door from their father in the middle of the day. The poem has a shimmering tension – “when all around them,/ all that could be/ changed by violence/ and violently changed”.
The fruitlessness of any attempt to elevate violence is explored in Scheherazade/Scheherazade:
I couldn’t accept that
suffering is suffering.
Not redemption. Not knowledge. Not forgiveness.
Tran ends this unforgettable collection with careful symmetry, in Orchard of Unknowing, a fugitive poem written on the brink and, fittingly, open-ended: “Where the flowers – opened, closed – tell me/ things have happened. Are happening. Are about to.”