While books are usually presented as stand alone objects, having a long-term relationship with a contemporary poet or writer -- reading his books as they come out and observing the development of his practice -- can be much more satisfying. Thus, failures and mitigated successes are often more exciting than the glories of a squarely hit bullseye; you learn to recognize the signs of an artist in transition to a new phase. These transitions signal that the genuinely hard and lonely work of making art is happening right now in someone's head, heart or soul.
This is how I'm thinking of Truong Tran's fifth book of poetry four letter words. I've known Tran for close to a decade, since my employer at the time, Kearny Street Workshop, published his first book, The Book of Perceptions. Tran's debut publication, an anomaly in many ways, is a self-contained, collaborative project between Tran the poet, a photographer, and a designer -- all Vietnamese American -- who combine their perceptions of contemporary Vietnam in print. A collection of his earlier work, Placing the Accents, mostly comprised of line-broken academic poetry about personal things and identity, ended up being published second.
It was only after shucking his collection of learning poetry and taking up a one-punch project like Perceptions that Tran really revealed his visual and rhythmic language. Perceptions piloted what Tran calls the "brick," a solid, left and right justified margin block of text with no capitalization and no punctuation which strikes the eye like a brick through a window, and has become Tran's default format. In his third book, dust and conscience, Tran rewrote and expanded upon the material in Perceptions. The brick began to yield more than just visual density from essentially prose-poetry. That density allows lines to run together into a new rhythm accented by hinge words and also protects currents that even picked-out verse can't reveal.
Tran had no sooner demonstrated the utility of the "brick" than he unraveled it again, quite literally and visually. within the margin, his fourth book, is a single, book-length poem, told off in a single line, from margin to margin, across each page of the book; an exceptionally long "brick" pulled out into yarn. Occasionally the yarn breaks into zig-zag tangles of adverse thought. The line shades and tints from one idea to the next reiterating the colors in different hues. It is symmetrical, and what the Germans would call vollkommen: not perfect, but entire unto itself.
I run through this history because four letter words is not entire unto itself. While drawing in elements -- topics, ideas, tactics -- of all four previous books, four letter words does not, as you might expect, serve as a good introduction to Truong Tran. It is the worst of both worlds: a piece that assumes you know what came before and yet doesn't carry the story forward.
The book contains a profusion of ideas and concerns not found in all of the previous four combined, yet displays no joy of discovery. Tran returns to the default "brick" seeking new topics and new ways of approaching old topics; the search is feverish and driven, yet in the first two "books" or sections, there is no through-line, no unity of purpose or inquiry. The book only begins to take on weight in the third section (the lost book) when an earlier piece -- a description of a home invasion that turns into gang-rape -- begins to echo, especially in a three-page reiteration of "i wish that this had never happened."
At the same time, Tran reveals a slyness that is the bitter successor of the humor and imagination he brought to his earlier work. The narrator's self-accusation of lying, deliberate obfuscations, and episodes of gender and sexuality-bending, say directly: you don't know what's true so don't assume. All you can know here is that -- whether on the street, in the body, on the page, or in his practice -- something terrible has happened to the narrator -- perhaps even to the poet -- and he is writing an entire book to avoid talking about it.
four letter words is the most resoundingly accomplished of all of Tran's books; every piece is a new effort, every page offers a new angle. Tran is too skilled and experienced by now not to know how to shape a book, draw its threads together, make its themes peek out and tantalize. But the theme of the poet trapped in his poetry, not enabled by it, is not just topic or modus, it's the actual feel: we are trapped in there, too, and it's pretty airless. The profusion is less artistic experimentation than a repeated trying of locked door handles. Perhaps this is entirely the poet's intention, but it does seem to be a lot of effort for a flat purpose, and I imagine it's more a reflection of the poet's status than anything else.
Near the end, Tran lets go of his strangle-hold on the format -- his insistence on experimentation -- and the "bricks" begin to lighten. He's gotten it off his chest, he's tried all the buttons, he's eaten the leftovers, he's cleaned his slate. What comes now? What's next?