Mai Der Vang’s Ancestral Ode

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“I am a refugee. You are too. Cry, but do not weep.”

I just finished Mai Der Vang’s recently released collection, Afterland, and my ears are still ringing. The residual hum left after reading her haunting poems makes it difficult to let go, even after you put it down.

Perhaps it’s Vang’s subject matter that takes such an emotional toll on the reader. These poems, which won the 2016 Walt Whitman Award for Poetry, bring forth the story of the Hmong people and Laos. Recruited by the CIA during the Vietnam War, many Hmong were forced to seek refuge in Thailand and the United States after fighting ceased. While this displacement rocked the country and its people, the massive amount of bombs dropped in the area—in the hundreds of thousands—left an utterly devastating impact. Laos has been scarred, physically and spiritually, by that conflict, and is still recovering.

Then too, perhaps it is Vang’s carefully molded poetry that speaks so vividly to the reader. Her words are deliberate and sharp, but hit like a wave instead of a hammer. Employing shifting imagery that morphs from line to line, she weaves with us through a history of displacement and disruption. In “Late Harvest,” the aftermath is felt through agricultural turmoil:

It started with the apricots
Turning all copper hues on the orchard floor.
The farmer had no one to pick them.

Then oranges.
And the tomatoes.

Someone has tilted the land.

Throughout the collection, Vang laments the enormous losses faced by the Hmong people. She revisits it through her images, and through the landscape she creates here. In “Dear Exile,” she explores the depths of leaving one’s homeland through delicate detail:

Never step back   Never a last
Scent of plumeria

When my parents left
You knew it was for good

It’s a herd of horses never
         To reclaim their      steppes

And, later in the same poem, through more violent, palpable imagery:

Old river     Calling to my mother
Kept spilling out of her lungs

Ridgeline vista closed
Into the locket of their gaze

The final, titular poem is presented in five parts, and is noticeably more sparsely arranged on the page than the rest. She has taken us with her through exile, loss, violence and discovery, and has woven into her poems the sadness of leaving one ravaged place for another. As we stand with her, at the end of this journey, she wants us to know exactly why we’ve been brought here. Her images glow through the page like fireflies, and lead us in the last dance of her collection.

                                                                 Drift now as the creature
                                                                       Not meant to land,

                                                                       Wings in reverse against wind.
                                            How to index my geography,

                                                              Map two miles from inhale to breath.
                                                   To recycle the chronology of a clock,

                                                                                       Borrow the ladder
                                                                          From a shaman’s dream:

                                                                 Once, I lived in the valley.
                                                                                Then I moved to the tent of ghosts.

cropped cover for Afterland

Read Vang’s collection today!

Request Afterland

Tess Wilson works in Civic Information Services at CLP – Main, and occasionally assists Teen Mentors during programming at the Labs. She is a collector of anything from big dictionaries to small rocks, and her latest acquisition was an MFA in Creative Writing of Poetry from Chatham University.

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