Theater of Cruelty

Confessional poetry or love poetry

Time is a mother
POETRY / Vietnamese-American Ocean Vuong's poetry is corporeal and sensual. And Wales' foremost female poet Menna Elfyn writes in the Celtic-Welsh minority language Cymric. We present them both here.


Cellängel Author Menna Elfyn, translated by Marie Tonkin Black Island Books, Sweden
Cellängel Author Menna Elfyn, translated by Marie Tonkin Black Island Books, Sweden

One could accuse the new woke culture of placing too much emphasis on who is speaking, rather than on what is being said. But with Vietnamese-American Ocean Vuong, it's hard to separate a biographical identity from a lyrical voice. He writes one confessional poetry as the term sounded in the 50s/60s, where the vulnerability of his poetry corresponds to the vulnerability of the emigrant's fate. Ocean Vuong was one of them Vietnamesee the boat refugees – that gave him his first name. A grandson of the Vietnam War, where his grandfather was an American soldier, and his mother was harassed in Vietnam because of her fair skin. But in the US he grew up in the working class, where his mother came to work in various nail salons.

American poetry

Of the Vietnamese poetry tradition, with its French influence, no traces are visible. For this is an American poetry – everyday, swinging and close to prose -
cadences. But from the beginning it is also somewhat cracked over the poems, in their strong emotional tensions. The only thing I can find to compare it to is the queer Japanese poet Mutsuo Takahaschi.

"The darkened / I like best is / we have on the inside"

Vuong's poetry is a bodily and sensual poetry, where the descriptions of puberty in the debut poetry collection Night Sky With Exit Wounds (USA, 2016) maintains a tone of something vaguely menacing, and of an absent father "reeking of gasoline and cigarettes", darkly watching over the boy with "milk-blue shoulders". Poems about masculinity and fascination with masculinity, about "men who touch breasts / as they would / the tops of skulls".

This poet is probably a bit hyped. To me, Ocean Vuong's debut book seems sharper. Both that and the new collection of poems have been translated for Samlaget, the latter under the title Time is a mother (2023), a book that provides many images of precisely the poet's mother (she died in the same year that the collection of poems was published in the USA). The poems have been translated by the poet Mathias R. Samuelsen, who seems to have done a good job, but who annoys this reviewer a little by bragging in the afterword that the poems were difficult to translate because of 'enjambment'. Such challenges are quite ordinary for those who have worked with poems in bound verse. New readers can start with the debut, also the one in Norwegian by Samuelsen, Night sky with ballroom (2019)

Purely lyrical elements

As in the debut book, in the new collection of poems it is the purely lyrical elements that touch the deepest: "Oh, wind-wrecking wanderer, widow of hope / and chuckle. Oh, sister, seed on stony ground – help me, / I was created to die, but came to stay.” This is also resonant in good Norwegian. The poems deserve a longer quote: "This boy who cried in the car / after his shift at MacDonald's / Easter Sunday. See how he / wipes his tears with his shirt / while semi-trailers rumble / past on the national highway. The darkened / I like best is what / we have on the inside, I want to say to him /…/ through the endless foliage / in New England. Maybe I saw a boy / with a black apron crying in a Nissan / as big as a monster's coffin and realized / I could never be angry. Maybe / I was, like you, one of those types / who love the world the most / when everything is at its worst in a fast car / on the way to nowhere.”

Ocean Vuong. (Photo: Tom Hines)

The Welsh poet Menna Elfyn

A completely different form of internationalism is represented by the Welsh poet Menna Elfyn. She writes in the Celtic-Welsh minority language Cymric, which it has been her sub-project to bring into the modern world – through countless journeys, in a global perspective. So, the small language in the big world. In Great Britain have Anglo-Welshe poets competed to translate her into English, and most of her poetry is also in English, in a large number of books. For the first time, she has now been translated into a Scandinavian language, after she was published in Swedish this year, with the selection Cell angel (2023)

As Wales' leading female poet, alongside Gwyneth Lewis, Elfyn has also led a life as an activist for the Welsh language, which was long banned from Welsh schools. She has served shorter prison terms following civil disobedience campaigns, in which the language activists allied themselves with anti-nuclear power groups and resisted and invaded the US Army base in Brawdy. For the first time since 1993, Welsh now enjoys the same rights in Wales as Nynorsk has in Norway. Today, Welsh is a common elective in Welsh schools, and one of the few minority languages ​​to have experienced a modern history of sunshine.

Love lyric

Menna Elfyn (Photo: Marian Delyth)

Her poetry also consists of a good portion of love poetry, which avoids the old clichés in all possible whimsical ways. Her free verse is built on the basis of the Welsh verse languages harmony, and her Swedish translator, Marie Tonkin, has taken as a starting point Welsha supplement to English versions. But the poet's sensuous appeal in love poetry does not really differ from that in political poetry. And like more and more poets in these pressured times, she uses irony to help, as when the different eye colors in the peephole on the cell door are described, or in a thank you for the hospitality in Her Majesty's Prisons: "Tack, drottning, för stämpeln på min tvål, / för gröt, at the appointed time, för träd-slitna towels.»

For the first time since 1993, Welsh now enjoys the same rights in Wales as Nynorsk has in Norway.

This poet's internationalism, strangely combined with the very local, plus the many travels, constantly gives new motives. Her poem about the wild dogs in Bucureşti is actually one of the best poems I have ever read (these are also available in English in Murmur.

In a travel poem from Egypt, the poet tells of an old woman in Cairo who suffers from a fear of germs and is known in the neighborhood for washing the notes from the day's earnings every morning and hanging them out to dry on a clothesline. The poem draws from this a political point which is no less funny since we in Norway already know this so well: "If you want to get your money clean now, / you have to scrub them yourself."

Håkan Sandell
Håkan Sandell
Sandell is now MODERN TIMES' regular poetry critic. He is a Swedish poet and literary critic. He is now a regular poetry critic in MODERN TIMES. Sandell has published around 30 books, and for several decades he has also worked as a culture writer for the Swedish morning newspaper Sydsvenskan. His latest book is the collection of poems The world opens the gates (2023).

You may also like