To Live Here by Soul Vang
Imaginary Friend Press, 2014
To Live Here is Soul Vang’s debut book of poetry with Imaginary Friend Press and conveys a remarkable journey that revolves around the evacuation of the Hmong from Long Cheng to Thailand. The book is comprised in four sections and in the notes, Vang writes that many Hmong escaped into the jungle to evade “capture or massacre” and many crossed the Mekong “in any way they could.” It’s a gripping read, even if a reader is not familiar with the Hmong exodus.
Vang eventually makes his way to America, but the earlier poems in the first section on escape are visceral. In the poem “The Last Sky”, Vang describes the airlifting of families to Thailand when the American C-130s arrive:
“The cargo holds quickly filled, the ramps start to rise. People fall in clumps to the hard tarmac.”
Major General Vang Pao was the last of the Hmong to be evacuated, and author Andrew Burke in his book The Road to Long Cheng: Inside the CIA’s Secret City writes that “tens of thousands of fighters and refugees were left behind.” Vang’s depiction of bodies falling “in clumps/to the hard/tarmac” is imagery that seems to perfectly capture the hysteria and scrabble. The line breaks are so tight in this poem, that it contributes to the anxiety of the moment.
The first section of the book spends time finding its language and voice, which seems to ape Vang’s relocation to America where he struggles to learn the language and culture. The second section of the book hones in on reinvention, reconciliation, and racism. The “yellow monsoon currents” are a recurring motif in almost each section and the word “yellow” starts to become synonymous with upheaval, racism, and identity. In the title poem “To Live Here”, Vang observes couples in Oakland, California—a Korean woman and her Sikh boyfriend, an African-American man and his Chinese wife, ducks and geese, sturgeons and stripers; this pairing becomes thematic as Vang reconciles being a refugee. There is a consistent tension of juxtaposition throughout the second section in the imagery and engine of the poems.
Some of the more narratively-arced poems are in the third section of the book, when Vang joins the United States Army and travels to Germany. The voice in these stories is young and sometimes darkly humorous. The poems begin to take on a more meditative quality as the poet gets some distance from the fall of Sky Base. It is in the fourth section of the book, however, that identity feels like it finds some resolution as the poems move chronologically. This section sees the poet settled in the San Joaquin Valley, where he is married and raising a daughter and son who may be on the autistic spectrum—a small detail from the poem “Fallen Apple” that seems to add a context to Vang’s tenuous straddling of two worlds. A good example of that meditative foothold is in the last verse of the poem “Journey to the Central Coast”:
“Cocooned in the cab of the Tundra, It seems we've been traveling This dark road forever and are destined To travel it evermore. I doze off momentarily, shake Myself awake, and am not sure If I'm leaving Or returning.”
Even the Toyota Tundra works as a stand-in for an actual tundra, where a tree’s growth is inhibited by short seasons and cold. Vang’s experiences as an American, a Hmong, a father, a brother, a son, and even as a poet all come to an awakening in the last section of the book. A reader is not sure, either, if Vang is leaving or returning, but the quality of the journey is what propels the poems in this collection and leaves a lasting impression.