A Journey to the Underworld in Poems
Paul Tran, author of "All the Flowers Kneeling," on reclaiming and subverting language for a new decolonized poetics
Debut poetry books are often forecasters of a poet’s potential but every so often, a true masterwork seemingly springs forth fully formed as if the goddess Athena, armor flashing and sword raised. Paul Tran’s full-length collection, All the Flowers Kneeling, arrived ready for war.
This is an exquisitely crafted labyrinth of a book that deconstructs, decolonizes, and triumphs over a variety of personal and societal traumas that have informed their identity as a transgender first-generation Vietnamese American. Each poem stands proudly on its own but also perfectly connects to the narrative arc as if intricate puzzle pieces. Wielding poetic form and language as weapon and wound, Tran transmogrifies the grotesque to the gorgeous, the victim to the victor, the oppressed to the liberated. At the center of this particular labyrinth is a monster with its bloody heart exposed and whose true face is one of the most powerful thing that ultimately redeems our humanity: love.
I emailed with Tran about their personal and poetic journey constructing the collection, invented forms, and reclaiming/subverting languages and world mythologies as a new decolonized poetics.
Angela María Spring: There are so many striking aspects and themes to the book, but the one that stood out the most to me is that these poems take us through a powerful underworld journey, possibly even more than one. I love underworld journeys, in literature, mythology, and lived reality. I believe all of us who experience childhood trauma undergo our first underworld journeys at a young age and continue traveling there for many years and this collection is a powerful testament to that in so many ways.
While the poems directly reference the underworld at certain points (for example, “Year of the Monkey”), do you also view the entire collection as one underworld journey, or a journey within a journey (sort of like a Russian doll effect)?
Paul Tran: My debut collection of poetry, All the Flowers Kneeling, is an underworld journey, and it’s a journey within a journey. The architecture mirrors the Greek rhetorical figure of chiasmus. Best understood as a cage within a cage, chiasmus can appear in rhyme as the Petrarchan scheme ABBA or in speech as John Keats submits in the poem, “Ode to a Grecian Urn,” “Beauty is Truth, truth beauty.” In these examples, “beauty” and “A” form the outer cage. “Truth” and “B” form the inner cage. This results in a feeling of emotional or psychological entrapment, of limited progress or stasis.
Such entrapment was my experience as a rape survivor, as a queer and trans person of color, as a child of refugees who had to be the first in my family to graduate high school and attend college. Sometimes I take one step forward and two steps back. Sometimes there’s no victory or redemption, though I so badly wanted there to be. It therefore felt precise to structure the book this way, to resist both personal and public expectation that my survival or success take the form of linear progression, moving simply from A to B or from beauty to truth.
The book enacts chiasmus by opening with “Orchard of Knowing” in Section 1 and closing with “Orchard of Unknowing” in Section 4, mapping a journey from certainty to doubt, from belief to faith, attachment to a necessary ambivalence. In order for us to make this journey, the book takes the reader into “The Cave” at the beginning of Section 2. The reader encounters evidence that others had been there before, leaving behind images and handprints on the wall, just as I had to discover how the women in my family endured violence for generations. Finally, the book takes the reader out of “The Cave” at the end of Section 3, but not before conscripting the reader to also leave their handprint on the wall, to be part of this unfolding history of survival.
This architecture—this Russian doll effect—also mirrors the story of Scheherazade. Central to the 19-page “sonnet crown within a sonnet crown” that appears in two halves, first at the beginning and then at the end of the book, Scheherazade originally appears in 1001 Nights, a collection of stories in which a king weds and executes a new beloved each morning. To spare her little sister this fate, Scheherazade volunteers to wed the king. She enters his bedchamber at night and proceeds to tell a story. She pauses in the middle of that story to begin another, and then she pauses that story to begin another, ending always on a cliffhanger so that in the morning, upon the hour of her execution, the king asks, “What happens next?” To find out, the king keeps Scheherazade alive, demanding she returns the next evening to resume the stories. Scheherazade returns. She returns for 1001 nights, and out of her stories we get some of our most known tales and myths. Not only did Scheherazade outsmart her destiny, she also gave us both the narrative devices of cliffhanger and frame story.
My book is a frame story. Each poem is a story inside that story, ending on a cliffhanger. It took basically every night of my life to write them, but here I am, still telling my stories, mysteries. The poems and the book brought me here.
AMS: Why was it important for you to frame the speaker’s healing/redemptive arc through the passage of the underworld and the natural cycle of the seasons?
PT: One of the most known stories is the Greek myth of Persephone. One of the most known poetic works is Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy. Both contain passages through the underworld. Both contend with the seasons of grief, rage, hope, and love. Both are canonical. By writing my passage through the underworld, how I had to be Persephone and Dante, Virgil and Demeter, the lost beloved and the beloved resolved to return from death, I am making an argument. I’m positioning my story next to theirs. I’m saying a story like mine, from voices like mine, the witnesses and primary sources, should matter and matter just as much.
While I make more direct arguments throughout the book, contending with canonical works by Elizabeth Bishop, W.H. Auden, and others, I make this argument via form. The interior sections of “Scheherazade,” for example, are cast in a subtle terza rima to reflect the rhyme scheme of The Divine Comedy. The book itself is cast in four sections, like the four seasons Persephone must endure, again and again. I therefore have deeply political reasons for every decision made in this book, and those political reasons are deeply personal as well.
Though my ambitions might be wild, perhaps lofty or impossible, how could I write about survival and not tackle the commonplace literature of survival imposed upon me from when I first learned to read, write, speak, and dream in English? How could I not expose their oversights? If I thought the master narratives available to me were sufficient for my being, then I would’ve never hungered and dared to be a writer. By writing, I’m implying the master narrative isn’t enough. Let me not imply it; let me say it plain: the master narrative will never be enough. I write to overwrite it. I write to right it. I’m dangerous and happily so.
AMS: Do you think poets can transcend our suffering through the act of creation or is it more like exorcizing a demon? Or, perhaps, both?
PT: This depends on what one understands, or wants, the definition of transcendence to be. Is transcendence the amelioration of suffering? Is it linear progress or the entering of a new suffering, which can be a kind of progress?
I imagine suffering as a self-preserving force: it doesn’t desire to end. It means to elude, to not be detected or named or understood or thwarted. Trauma is this way. As an injury to both the body and the mind, it persists the way a parasite does, replicating inside the host body, grafting its genetic material onto the host’s. For such reasons, so many of us find it impossible to break cycles of violence, of behaviors and choices that threaten our well-being. We find those cycles mutative and metastatic, consistently malignant.
Part of my process was asking whether I even wanted to be understood, whether I wanted to survive and rescue myself from myself, my past, and I shamefully and regretfully realized that often I didn’t. I cleaved to my suffering. I created art that either deflected from my true suffering or merely consoled it, distracting it with false triumphs and righteous rage. I had to want the truth. I had to look in and not just at myself, if I wanted the truth. Truth, in this way, is new knowledge. It wasn’t what I thought I knew. It’s what I discovered and had to, painfully, accept in order to change.
AMS: You interrogate language in such a compelling way, bringing to light the multiple meanings of single words or phrases (“the sharp difference between healing and heeling”) and it’s effective far beyond just being a rhetorical device and I wonder if you also consider the interrogation of the multiple meanings of language is a way to express the multiplicity/possibilities of gender far beyond the binary, as well?
PT: The intersection of my identities and experiences informs my understanding and use of language. Growing up in a home and neighborhood where Vietnamese was my first vehicle for communicating with the world, I had to distinguish different meanings for the same word. “Ma,” for example, depending on the diacritical marks, could mean mother or ghost. “Nuoc” could mean water or country, or both, depending on the context. Language, whether Vietnamese or English, had a natural ambiguity, and my teachers taught me to exploit the natural ambiguity of language when I write.
I think, for instance, of my favorite Suji Kwock Kim poem, “Monologue for an Onion,” in which the speaker says, “Poor fool, you are divided at the heart, / Lost in its maze of chambers, blood and love, / A heart that will one day beat you to death.” That final utterance contains lyric ambiguity. It could mean violence, as in the heart will cause the addressee physical harm. It could mean the duality or simultaneity of life and death, as in the heart, which keeps the body alive, is also breaking down slowly as the body ages. It could mean a kind of race, with death as the finish line, and the heart running across that line before the addressee can. And, of course, it could mean the nature of love, which is invoked whenever a heart is invoked.
Whatever the interpretation is, and there are many, relies on who the reader is and what the reader consciously or unconsciously wants the interpretation to be. The poem, therefore, becomes a language game the reader plays, and the game is one in which the reader uses the poem’s materials—its form and content—to make meaning, and to substantiate that meaning with the text. A poem becomes a robust language game when its form and content are intentionally patterned at the level of sound, meter, syntax, grammatical mood, the poetic line, detail, image, figure, and so forth. The more intentional the patterning is the more the reader can play—can stay in the enchantment, the inexhaustible magic.
Lyric ambiguity makes sense to me as well, in terms of my gender, because it pushes language beyond meaning this or that. It’s a “both and” situation, and it’s “neither and,” and it’s “both and neither and.” By activating all the possible meanings at once, I’m interrogating the very meaning of things, and that enterprise is central to this book: What does survival mean? What does a good life look like? What is goodness, in this place and time? And by interrogating meaning, I hope, and intend, to transform meaning itself.
AMS: Black/Brown/marginalized poets often work through our own erasure with erasures or create erasure and/or collage forms, such as your two “Incident Report” poems, which also reference a Monica Youn poem. How do you view the importance of erasure in both your own work and for contemporary poetry as a whole?
PT: Fire, sometimes, can only be fought with fire. Fire also allows for things to grow, to return to life, as with many California pines that require heat from smoke and flames to produce generations. Through this lens, I understand the importance of erasure for communities that have been and continue to be erased.
Even though I want to say my poetics is a poetics of anti-erasure, of recovery or illumination, all of which occurs through my practice of lyric investigation and discovery, I believe anti-erasure results in a kind of necessary erasure. For example, when I appropriate the bureaucratic lexicon of incident or progress report forms, and when I complete the forms with responses that I wish I’d given, or responses I wasn’t permitted to give, I’m revising and therefore erasing what actually happened, what the bureaucracy of the original form denied me, by incorporating my more complete truth and representing myself, and what happened to me, on my own terms and in my own words.
This is not unlike my poem “Scientific Method,” where I borrow the voice of a rhesus monkey separated at birth from its mother and experimented upon to reveal to humans the nature of love, attachment, and early childhood development. That monkey never got to speak back to its oppressors, to the scientists and laboratory technicians who watched it languor for hundreds of days—alone in a cage, sometimes with a bottle of milk, sometimes without, with only a doll made out of terry cloth or wire to serve as a surrogate mother. I ask that monkey for its voice, to render through lyric indirection my own story of isolation, and in return, I give back to that monkey the blank page for it to tell its story, for it to correct the historical record, to disclaim not only how cruel the experiments were, or how the trauma of the experiments impacted its life forever, but how those responsible for harming it were also harmed by their own cruelty.
Such correction is a necessary erasure. It erases the false narrative, the version of history written by the powerful, and stops the promotion of misinformation, of lies and received ideas that protect the dignity of the few at the expense of the many.
In this light, perhaps every poem participates in a kind of erasure: their existence implies that the author believes, on some level, that what they have to say about a subject matter, and how they say it, is more accurate than what has been said. The author believes that their work adds to the body of work on that subject, and the notion of “adding to” implies whatever is added was missing or found insufficient. That is, ultimately, how art and knowledge production go together. We make because we need; we need because we deserve; and when we belong to communities denied what we deserve and what we need, we make. We fight against our erasure by dismantling, and thus erasing, the systems that would rather we be silent. We fight by inventing.
AMS: You invented a poetic form, “the Hydra” (I love this form and name) for “I See Not Stars but Their Light Reaching across the Distance between Us,” placed in the middle of the collection, the heart of the underworld journey; it is brilliant and complex and everyone should take time with it through multiple readings. Would you share a brief description of the form and how it forms the central tension of the entire collection?
PT: For so long, and still in so many ways, the communities I belong to have been excluded from being “human.” We’re denied our inventions, and our inventions are appropriated by systems of power to suggest shifts in institutionalized power that aren’t shifts at all.
It’s a matter of hubris, I know, to say I invented anything, but the invention of this poetic form saved my life. As a queer and trans person of color, as the first in my family to graduate high school and to go college, and as the first in my family to read, write, and speak in English, I’ve spent my existence looking for the forms my dreams can take. I couldn’t find them, or the forms I found proved insufficient. I had to, therefore, invent my own. As a poet, I learned from my teachers, particularly Carl Phillips and Mary Jo Bang, the imperative to use all the tools of language, to import my idiosyncratic interiority onto the page, and to invent forms that more accurately enacted (for me) and mirrored (for the reader) the emotional and psychological experience of trauma survivors. The Hydra reimagines the sonnet, the sonnet crown, and the sestina to achieve such a form.
The Hydra is a nonce, or invented form, consisting of thirteen sections. Each section is a lyric of thirteen lines. The final line contains thirteen words. The first word of the last line in Section X becomes the first word of the first line in Section Y. The second word of the last line in Section X becomes the first word of the second line in Section Y. This continues for the third through thirteenth words of the last line in Section X and the first words of the third through thirteenth lines in Section Y.
Confusing? Follow me below:
Bloomed after decades dormant. After dryness and heat. After the rainfall
Blurred the atmosphere. The desert a sea of gold and pink and purple.
Let sprout. Let butterflies and bees and hummingbirds. Let grow
This Desert Gold. This Gravel Ghost. This Golden Evening Primrose. This
Photograph of Notchleaf Phacelia rising three feet high from a bed of stone.
Show the way. Show salt flats and sand dunes and rock. Show faith
That a moment can be a monument. That the monumental can be this momentary.
Human was I who came back and still took for granted the abundance
Nature made known to me. Prince’s Plume. Magnificent Lupine. My suffering
Is that I try to make my suffering beautiful, and I’m no beauty. I’m told that
Nature’s an allegory in which the ego hides. Like the Dark Throat Shooting Star
Cruelest was I who crossed Death Valley to the Valley of Life. By my own
INVENTION, I FOUND A WAY. I’M NO ARTIFACT. BETWEEN ART AND FACT: I.
INVENTION slid into my mind tonight, like a formal feeling, just as
I slid my body into my bodysuit. It was August again.
FOUND in my purse was a boarding pass. And there I was looking through
A telescope in the fog-covered field as someone drew closer.
WAY in the distance, the stars appeared. Still fixed. Still luminous.
I’M going to be far from my pain one day. I’m going to
NO longer feel that pain but something new and just as merciless.
ARTIFACT of the past. Artifice of the future. There I was in the tall grass
BETWEEN the choices I’d made and the choices I was given. The fog’s ambivalent
ART made it so that I saw only what was in front of me.
AND no matter what drew closer—the stranger in the field or the field itself,
FACT or fiction, my need or my desire—I had to focus on what I could see.
I see not stars but their light reaching across the distance between us.
These are Section 12 and Section 13 of the Hydra. The final line in Section 12 is: “Invention, I found a way. I’m no artifact. Between art and fact: I.” The respective first words of the thirteen lines in Section 13 are: invention, I, found, a, way, I’m, no, artifact, between, art, and, fact, I.
The Hydra modifies the sonnet, the sonnet crown, and the sestina to enact the interiority—the emotional and psychological life—of a trauma survivor. Whereas a sonnet has fourteen lines, typically concluding on a conclusive couplet, the Hydra has only thirteen lines, to resist as much as possible the psychological impulse to reach for closure and certitude. Whereas a sonnet crown repeats, typically verbatim, the final line of sonnet X as the first line of sonnet Y, the Hydra repeats in order and verbatim the thirteen words in the final line of section X as the first words of the thirteen lines in section Y, to resist as much as possible the psychological impulse to import, cleanly and clearly, lessons learned from one experience to another. And whereas the sestina deploys word repetition at the end of the line, the Hydra deploys word repetition at the beginning of the line to resist the psychological impulse to move from an unknown beginning to a known end. Instead, by moving from a known beginning to an unknown end, the Hydra enacts the experience of survivors embarking from the immediate aftermath of trauma or extremity toward an imagined future.