by SOUVANKHAM THAMMAVONGSA
Pedlar Press, (September 15, 2013)
73 pages, $20 (Paperback)
Reviewed by Kathryn Gwun-Yeen Lennon
On a fall morning, just after daylight savings, I began reading Light. The bus I was riding turned a corner, and a coincidence of sunlight behind the book cover set Souvankham Thammavongsa’s words aglow.
Light. Thammavongsa takes this one word, and refracts it into 42 poems, which she places gently before her reader like a string of lights — a collection of snapshots taken up close and from afar, through the lenses of memory, language, science, place, nature, and emotion. It is a thoughtfully-crafted, poetic act. Luminescent. Stark. Diffuse.
There is both elegance in simplicity, and complexity within constraint in Thammavongsa’s writing. Some poems are highly structured; others are a scattering of words across the page. She sprinkles in little poetry riddles, like “In Icelandic the word for light is ljós/And the word for poem is ljóð/What happens at the end can change everything.” She plays with sound and meaning, using homophones as a doorways between worlds: “A joule is a unit of work and energy/a jewel is a gem, a thing you mine the earth for, a thing that occurs when laws and elements line up under the right conditions.”
Some poems are poignant. In “Perfect,” a child does her homework by streetlamp because her father has lost his job and sold the house, leaving the family to sleep in a van. She writes: “I will angle/my notebook to catch the light. This light./I will go back to school and hand in my notebook/and it will be perfect. Perfect. It’s what I’ve earned.”
Other poems are playful. In “Licht,” Thammavongsa writes: “What if the sun tasted like orange sorbet? The kind served on a single glass spoon?”
As a physical object, Light is like finding a pebble at the beach, something to turn over in your hands again and again, and each time find a different meaning in its texture and weight.
On a February night last year, I passed a bulletin board with these words “Give light and people will find the way.” These words, written by Ella Baker, a behind-the-scenes activist in civil rights movements, sent me on into the dark that night with a lighter heart.
Thammavongsa too, gives light. She gifts us with a spectrum of possibilities, then sends us back out into the world to find our way, proving that light and poetry are the very same thing.
This review was featured in issue 19.1
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