Reenactments, Hai-Dang Phan
"Must-Read Poetry: February 2019," The Millions
In Reenactments, Hai-Dang Phan grapples with the history, memory, and legacy of the Vietnam War from his vantage point as the son of Vietnamese refugees. Through a kaleidoscope of poetic forms, the past and present, the remembered and imagined, all intersect at shifting angles providing urgent perspectives on conflicts both private and public. Phan weaves throughout the collection stories of his family’s exodus from Vietnam, thoughtfully reenacting an American experience of immigration, dislocation, inheritance, and hope. And, in a fresh move, Phan widens the lens, incorporating translations of several Vietnamese poets. This moving debut marks a vital addition to the literature of immigration and a distinctive contribution to contemporary poetry.
Hai-Dang Phan was born in Vietnam in 1980 and grew up in Wisconsin. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, Poetry, Best American Poetry 2016, and the chapbook, Small Wars. He is the recipient of an NEA Literature Fellowship, the Frederick Bock Prize from Poetry, and the New England Review Award for Emerging Writers. He currently teaches at Grinnell College and lives in Iowa City, Iowa. Reenactments is his first book.
PRAISE FOR REENACTMENTS
"In Phan’s strong, enlightening debut collection, without flinching from pain or turning away from history's critical gaze, he binds his birth country, Vietnam, to his adopted one, the United States. . . . Phan is a poet who should be read widely."
"Phan's debut unflinchingly presents the trauma inherited through cultural memory as a kind of endless war reenactment. In these poems, even the most mundane setting is haunted by living ghosts. . . . These poems are unadorned and ominous in their vision of memory, a clarion that never ceases to alarm or awe."
“'To make things worse, they are extremely supportive of my choices' is such a strange and quintessentially immigrant utterance. . . .What to do with the guilt we feel that our lives are often so much easier than the lives of our parents? How can any of our fears, anxieties, lonelinesses be worth mentioning when theirs have been so great? For you (and often, for myself), I prescribe Hai-Dang Phan’s “My Father’s ‘Norton Introduction to Literature,’ Third Edition (1981).”
—Kaveh Akbar, The Paris Review
"In the poem 'Get to Know Your Ghost,' Phan recommends you determine 'whether it is free Saturday night / or Sunday afternoon for a visitation.' This line, and the collection as a whole, is both gift and invitation. Phan’s vantage point is wide, but it won’t do all the work for you. You are going to have to 'do something painful each day.' You are going to have to ask the ghost something. And every something will begin to make all the difference."
—"Staff Picks: Sapphics, Scandals, and Skies," Spencer Quong, The Paris Review
"Phan’s mixture of original and translated work creates a unique debut that is both singular and anthological."
—Nick Ripatrazone, The Millions
“In Phan’s strong, enlightening debut collection, without flinching from pain or turning away from history’s critical gaze, he binds his birth country, Vietnam, to his adopted one, the United States. In “To a Human Skull,” he poses a metaphysical question, “On quiet afternoons do you / search for the trace elements? / Would you recognize your / soul if you bumped into it?” As an immigrant, Phan expresses keen observations of America, some harsh, some poignant, others purely poetic, as in “Archive Fever”: “In the cracked and blazing lot / you stand like a sundial / searching for that good shirt / you wear like someone else’s life.” Phan brings gracefulness to lines presenting images that are harsh and cracking. “Anniversary” is a two-stanza poem in which the living engage with the dead: “Our prayers are perfunctory. / One of your sons dutifully uncoils a garden hose. / ‘Time to give the old man a bath.’ / Squalor of the living, splendor of the dead.” Phan is a poet who should be read widely.”
—Raúl Niño, Booklist
"Phan brilliantly threads translations of works by Vietnamese poets throughout the book. These translations become another form of retelling or re-envisioning as he connects his present to his family’s exodus from Vietnam to the United States. Yet this collection goes far beyond the individual experience of the Vietnam War, as it examines the larger impact of war on history and culture – ultimately culminating in a sense of connection through lived, imagined and remembered experiences."
“Hai-Dang Phan is a poet of fearless vision. With brutal and exquisite precision, he reveals that the effort to make art out of the real world—history, memory, and experience—often intensifies a feeling of irresolution. The brilliance of his first book Reenactments: Poems and Translations lies in a deft interrogation of mimesis and, in particular, how representing the history of war and migration for Vietnamese Americans can reify silences, erasures, and cultural dislocations. But Phan also builds a powerful stay against despair through translations that spotlight contemporary Vietnamese poetry while slyly suggesting that no language or history is isolate and every poem may very well be a translation. Such remarkable insights accumulate, and by book’s end I was struck by the immense beauty and feeling of Reenactments and had to read it again.”
“In poems that are as intense as they are lucid, Hai-Dang Phan illustrates James Baldwin’s assertion that history is not the past, it is the present. The military hardware transported on the interstate, the vexing public memorials for past and recent wars, the refugees on the TV news, and the punk band named after the Viet Cong—Phan shows the present charged by the toxic continuing of the past. Reenactments is a book of haunted, forensic reckoning. Each poem in this beautiful and bitter book may begin in the intimate stories of the personal, but its ultimate scope is the national story of the broken American self and the havoc of its imperial project.”
“Throughout this wonderful debut, we experience the various modes of reenactment: as memory, as mimesis, as fugue state, as cinema, and as translation. American English can no more turn away from what its Vietnamese citizens speak: ‘I heard America burp.’ Hai-Dang Phan, obsessed as he might be with the tenderness of survival and the transmogrification of war weapons, cannot forget that to be Vietnamese is also to remember Iraq and Syria. This book is greater than the interiority of family. It builds rooms in its stories to house more and more people.”
“Haunted by the long aftermath of war and diaspora, Hai-Dang Phan’s poems and translations explore how memory, like language, is never static. Moving from war reenactments to familial narratives to memories of Vietnam, Phan’s language is pliable, attentive to terror, humor, sorrow, and hope. His gaze is clear-eyed and expansive. Reenactments is a gorgeously crafted, deeply moving, and singular debut.”
"This must be the best poetry: the kind that makes you feel that you ought to appreciate your life, then change it, and urgently. Hai-Dang Phan writes what needs to be written, translates what we need to understand, and reminds me to love as much as I said I did. Reenactments deserves to go not just far, but beyond."
“Phan is in such command of his versification and powers of telling, it is hard to believe that this is his first book. These beautiful poems and translations dramatize the story of an exodus, the inheritance of memories, and the legacy of war, not only through Phan’s perspective and his family’s, but also through a host of alternate voices, alternate histories. Reenactments is an extraordinary book.”