Reviewed by May Lui
Found is Souvankham Thammavongsa’s second published book of poetry, her first is Small Arguments.
The poems are pieces, fragments and notes, inspired by a scrapbook kept by Thammavongsa’s father in 1978, the year she was born.
Found poetry, as readers may already know, is finding, creating and discovering poetic meaning and expression in words, phrases, objects, anything really, that wasn’t intended as poetry. I’ve written a few found poems, and there’s often humour and hidden meanings that wouldn’t have been noticed in the original form. Dionne Brand once wrote a found poem of the names of old stores and businesses along Dundas Street West in Little Portugal. I like to think of found poems as gifts that the poet finds and passes on. Changed, but not completely changed, and then presents to the reader.
I struggled with this review for a few reasons. First, I have a hard time reading and understanding poetry sometimes. My mind is too linear, my brain too rational and grounded in the everyday. I often feel blocked and intimidated. And secondly, there’s hardly any words in this collection! The book is short, the poems, as I’ll describe in a moment, are very spare with words. Words, the very thing I need, as a reviewer.
Each poem is a mystery; sparse and deliberate. I read each poem several times, becoming greedy for more layers, more meaning, more of everything.
The first poem, which is untitled, sets the tone of the collection. It’s about someone, but we don’t know who. This is a bit annoying, as the reader can only imagine who the poem is about, and we aren’t given enough clues to figure it out. Yet through my annoyance I wonder if that’s the intent. To force the reader to notice how little “truth” we know, or have access to. Throughout most of our lives, especially those of us who come from elsewhere or whose families came from elsewhere, or who come from here and have had histories erased and obliterated; parts of our lives and our heritages not valued, destroyed, lost.
The collection reads like the scraps of information Thammavongsa has gleaned for her poems. Many times I feel as if I almost understand, I have a moment of insight, then the meaning slips away from me. I find myself needing and wanting more information, more words. I’m unsure if they are being purposely withheld or simply lost, the way words, lives and memories are lost in transit, in migration, in the face of survival and priorities.
Found itself seems disoriented, directionless and random. It’s an unsolved puzzle with no resolution and no finite ending. In a linear and rational world, and with my rational brain always turned on, it’s challenging for me to see these qualities as positive, yet they are.
There’s more absence than presence in the poems. This makes the words that we are given all the more precious. These wisps are all we have to cling to.
Two poems about postage stamps infer time, space, distance and the unknown contents of the letters/packages. What the contents were, and what happened to them are questions that are both unasked and unanswerable.
My favourite poems are the ones that are more personal, and less about the found materials themselves. Poems like My Father’s Handwriting, My Mother, A Portrait of, What I Can’t Read and Laos.
On the cover is a silver mark, a reproduced hand-drawn slash mark. In the latter part of the collection the reader learns where the slash mark was found. Its meaning can only be guessed and is another mystery to ponder.
May Lui is a Toronto-based writer who is mixed-race, anti-racist, feminist and an all-around troublemaker. She blogs at maysie.ca, ranting and raving at any and all injustices and uses the f-bomb regularly. She’s been published in the Toronto Star, Fireweed Magazine, Siren Magazine, in the anthology With a Rough Tongue: Femmes Write Porn, at section15.ca and rabble.ca. Contact her firstname.lastname@example.org
Tune into BlackCoffeePoet.com Wednesday October 19, 2011 for an interview with Souvankham Thammavongsa.