I read Not Here as soon as my galley arrived in March but never made the time to write a review that could do it justice, and I still think it’s impossible to write a review that would do it justice so here goes!
—— content warning: sexual violence and suicidal thoughts ——-
These poems are tender and vulnerable and so, so personal. I feel honored to be given so much of Hieu in these poems. I don’t know him and actually have never even talked with him, but I’ve followed him on Instagram and read his poems for several years now, and I’ve always admired the fuck out of him for being himself and for exuding happiness and positivity even in raw or painful moments.
In Not Here, Hieu writes often about his mother, about longing, about self-esteem and the fluidity of identity. I learned so much about my own feelings in reading these poems; lines resonated with me and helped me uncover the complexities of my own parental relationships and self-esteem. “Madness, too, can be cumulative,” he writes in “Probe.”
In a brutally honesty and heartbreaking piece titled “Hosting,” Hieu writes:
The man wakes me up by slipping a finger inside.
I don’t move away, can’t go back to sleep
until he’s done. It would be too easy
to make him leave, to roll on my back
to scream out the open window, but instead
I laugh & say, you won’t find it—you won’t
find whatever you’re looking for.
I’m at a loss for words to explain the emotional turmoil this brings me and am so saddened by the reality that so many of us can relate to this sexual violence. And the quagmire of relationships where consent isn’t present but also isn’t “not present.” How we lose ourselves in wishful thinking and can’t bring ourselves to vocalize the “no.” This review is a mess, I know. But isn’t that what poetry can do for us? Meet us in the messiness of memory and burden and fiancial stress and remind us that we aren’t alone? That’s what Hieu’s poems do for me.
“I want to be a bird, or forgiven,” he writes in “Again, What Do I Know About Desire?” “[G]rief can taste of sugar if you run your tongue along the right edge,” he writes in “Still, Somehow.” Yes, I know reviews aren’t supposed to just quote lines, but what can I say about Hieu’s poems to help you understand their elegance and transcendence? I insist on showing you.
her perfect temperature
the only language
This excerpt is from the powerful piece “Ode to the Pubic Hair Stuck in My Throat,” which wrestles with, as you can imagine, sexuality, as well as race and discrimination. The speaker explains how gay sex is a secret from the speaker’s mother. I ache and try not to cry in understanding. I mourn the truths we bury out of love for our parents. I wish we didn’t have to live in versions of ourselves.
In “Heavy,” he writes:
Sometimes my friends—my friends
who are always beautiful & heartbroken
look at me like they know
I will die before them.
I think the life I want
is the life I have, but how can I be sure?
I groan reading these lines. Hieu is a master of emotion, setting up poems with concise details and descriptions, then delivering a comment or observation that hits like a punch to the gut.
“I cannot kill myself until my mother dies,” he writes in “Notes on Staying.” Again, I groan. Not only is Hieu an expert poet, he’s also incredibly wise and a brilliant thinker.
Not Here is an important read and an important reread. I wholeheartedly recommend adding it to your nightstand pile of books. <3 You can purchase this collection from Coffee House Press or your local bookseller for $17.