Wednesday, September 20, 2017



AFTERLAND by Mai Der Vang
(Graywolf Press, Minneapolis, Minn., 2017)

When I first began reading through Mai Der Vang’s AFTERLAND—specifically the first two sections—I started to feel an unexpected disquiet.  Unexpectedly, I began to meditate on Beauty and its role in a tragedy / disaster / crime-against-humanity.  That is, I was struck at the wondrous luminosity of many of the lines etching out the poems on these pages … and I wonder(ed): should this telling be so beautiful? The poems, after all, address the tragedy of the Laotian Civil War which was also a proxy war between global Cold War superpowers (indeed, it was called the “Secret War” by the CIA and Hmong veterans) and the resulting flight of the Hmong people to become refugees. On many pages, words seem too beautiful or inappropriately beautiful. Of course, I would come to see this as a testament to Der Vang’s poetic prowess—there is inescapable beauty that almost overwhelmed, but ultimately only emphasized, dissonance. For example, in “Light from a Burning Citadel,” there exists insertion of martial terms—the insertions, though, were just done so deftly that in my initial read I glossed over their significance:

“The sky sleeps quilted in a militia of stars.”


“I’ve become the shrill
air in a bamboo pipe—the breath
of an army of bells.”

Stars and bells are terms that more often bear positive resonance. Der Vang upends them.

I also noticed how the poet upends normative grammar. Nouns become verbs. Verbs become nouns, e.g.

“I tell to your thick listening”
—from “This Heft Upon Your Leaving” 50

“Slow pages widow my way.”
—from “Phantom Walker” 49

There are other linguistic dislocations (e.g. what some might call “surreal”) and because of them, my initial unease over Beauty’s role fell away. This poet simply found a way to retain the beauty of her culture, her birthland, despite the ugliness that was wasted upon such. It’s her “Afterland”—who am I or anyone to dispute the manner of accommodating a painful history?

But her language made me question while offering a possible answer. In this sense, the collection is sly: its poetry is not open-ended, which is to say, up to the viewer. The history—what happened—is known and a variety of interpretation would be deception-making. The poet mourns, but survives. A poet, she casts “paper stones” (50) that become more than mere words when they move the reader. The poems move profoundly. Here’s a sample poem

 (click on image to enlarge)

through which the poet also taught this reviewer a new word: “swidden” which is defined as the method of clearing land by slashing and burning vegetation. That Der Vang applied it to a human body is … devastating. I bow in awe at her poetic prowess, and in sorrow for her people and our shared humanity.


Eileen Tabios is the editor of Galatea ResurrectsHer 2017 poetry releases include four books, two booklets and six poetry chaps. Most recently, she released MANHATTAN: An Archaeology (Paloma Press) and Love in a Time of Belligerence (Editions du Cygne/SWAN World). She does not let her books be reviewed by Galatea Resurrects because she's its editor, but she is pleased to point you elsewhere for recent reviews of her work: T.C.. Marshall reviews MANHATTAN for The FilAm Magazine while Joey Madia reviews it for Literary AficionadoHer books have been released in nine countries and cyberspace. More info about her work at

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