A line from a poem called “The Dictator,” toward the end of the book: “The world without me // is the space in this room.” I’ve never thought about it that way. She’s right—Diana Khoi Nguyen, I mean. We’re surrounded at all times by a picture of what the world will look like (what it has looked like, what it looks like even now) without us in it. The very air is a portrait of our absence.
It’s a sentiment that helps me understand the formal innovations of Nguyen’s Ghost Of. Two particular forms, and both experiments with erasure. The first she borrows from a Japanese tradition of picture-making called, Gyotaku, where a fisherman would sometimes record the size of his catch by inking the profile and pressing it against washi paper.
Here’s what it looks like in the book (just one instance of it: there are lots of variations):
In each of Nguyen’s Gyotaku poems, her brother has been clipped from the photograph and transfigured into words. This is the brother whose suicide is the subject of the book.
A little isosceles, swimming away from the photograph, reads: “uncontained, even water abandons itself; there is mystery inside migration, the elver swimming up ahead, out of the photograph; eels who ride atop each other do not have to see each other face to face; of the road, it does not move, it is everywhere it has a story, I am in it, you are in it.”
The second form is the triptych. Same concept (freeing one’s loss from its original context, giving it a new shape, letting it exist on its own terms—”The world without me // is the space in this room”).
The words that shape Nguyen’s brother are self-contained. They don’t fit in the block of text that appears next to him. In other words, you can read the large block of text continually, right through the missing shape. If you were listening to a recitation, you wouldn’t know that something has gone missing. And the same is true for the thin thumbprint of text taken out. You can read it on its own terms: “mindful of the setting he counted off the seconds in his head as the solitary bee struggles to fly inside the walls of an empty house, her sisters dead below her; no wind, no rain; we stayed.”