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“the groundwork remains”:
Souvankham Thammavongsa's Cluster

Souvankham Thammavongsa, Cluster
Toronto: Penguin Randomhouse, 2019.

The poems in Souvankham Thammavongsa’s fourth collection, Cluster, warrant multiple readings. Though drawn in simple language, these are not gentle or delicate poems, but blunt, and Thammavongsa is not interested in bringing the reader to places of refuge or comfort. Rather, she quietly shakes the reader out of their privilege with her incisive voice.

What Cluster provides are succinct documents of existence, among them a series of brokerage reports, utilizing dehumanizing and hypnotic financial language that raises “concerns” without a human element. Thammavongsa also draws upon subjects like animals, childhood pop culture, cultural history, family vacations, and photographs—in these photograph poems, the poet examines the scenes therein, with uncomfortable family dynamics, morphed by memory and current biases, caught in the still.

A few pages apart, the poems “Whales” and “Ants,” contain similar lines: “The seagulls circle them / Waiting for what they didn’t kill” (“Whales”), and

and I
would

fill
the hole

I didn’t
make (“Ants”)

These lines seem to question what is deserved, earned. Consider that, as a scavenger, a gull occupies a decidedly reviled role; we like figures who hunt, earn their food and space nobly, not those who come by it through the efforts and suffering of others. Imagining her own burial in “Ants,” the speaker has no agency, no utility or effort to provide. As a deceased person, her body will take up space made by someone else’s hand.

Thammavongsa’s animal poems include very little description. For example, in “Whales,” the reader does not know whether these are large whales, what colour they are, what they feed upon, or even what ocean they’re in. In an interview in Postcolonial Text, she stated: “I don’t care about nature… only when nature is language to me do I see how much I do care.” Thammavongsa does not flesh out her ideas to make them palatable, nor does she glorify her clear moral grounding. She works from memory rather than extending to researched detail, letting thoughts snag on the sensations or associations that arise and the reader to meander alongside.

At the centre of Cluster is the haunting long poem “O.” Thammavongsa looks at O as a letter, a gesture, a meaning, a degree, an assignment of numeric value. More specifically, “O” details the horrific legacy of cluster bombs in Laos; deadlier than landmines, these casings disperse what are called bomblets, the size of an orange, over wide areas. An estimated two and a half million tons of U.S. ordnance was dropped on Laos between 1964 and 1973, representing a bombing mission, on average, every eight minutes for nine years. At least one third of Laos is contaminated with unexploded ordnance (UXO). When a flood occurred in Laos a few years ago, the waters unearthed and carried UXO to areas where the land had finally been declared safe for its inhabitants. With the O’s spoken of, she writes: “The groundwork remains / Proving there is no such thing as time / It doesn’t respect or forgive or lessen anything.”

Thammavongsa’s cynicism here is vital. She illustrates just enough evidence of observation and thought to suffice. This can result in stiff endings that feel abrasive, in keeping with the violence or troubling nature of what is presented. Reading Cluster, one is confronted with vulnerable ideas, stark possibilities, and startling craft. In “Theory of Writing,” she considers the importance of holding space, and looks at what the point of writing might be: “What / You had to learn and build, the time it took / To hold open that possibility for yourself.”

Allison LaSorda’s first book was published in 2017. She is the managing editor of Brick, A Literary Journal.

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