Lily Hoang, A Bestiary
Publisher: Cleveland State University Poetry Center
2016, 151 pages, paperback, $16
IN HER MOST recent book, A Bestiary, Lily Hoang deals, in both fact and fiction, with beasts. While some of these beasts are animals–lab rats in maze experiments, a slaughtered goat turned into stew, a grieving tiger from a fable–the majority of them are human in nature. The beast might be, in the case of the speaker’s abusive ex-husband, the whole of a person. More often than not, however, the beasts are the conditions and pressures that act upon the Hoang family and those around them.
There is the beast of expectation, which compels Hoang’s sister to pursue the American dream and then, having attained every signifier of success (a husband, a beautiful home, children), to begin pursuing an opiate addiction. There is the beast of silence, which prompts Hoang’s mother, a refugee from Vietnam, to declare time and again that “Vietnamese women suffer better than all other people.” And there are the twin beasts of aggression and objectification, which lead Hoang to write, “My assumption, now, is that every man has an Asian fetish. This is born out of low self-esteem—and fact, it’s born out of fact.” There is the beast of anxiety. The beast of loss. The beast of grief. Hoang takes each of these to task, mapping each ghastly instance and its causes and effects. She does not fall victim to pain; she becomes a witness to it, a reflector upon it.
Selected by Wayne Koestenbaum for the Cleveland State University Poetry Center’s 2015 Essay Collection, A Bestiary occupies the space between poetry and essay that is fast-becoming its own genre–one favored by the likes of Maggie Nelson, Claudia Rankine and, Suzanne Buffam. As she navigates the hard edges and shifting boundaries that comprise her understanding of both herself and the world, Hoang utilizes short, fragmented sections that, coupled with her smart and surprising pivots, build not only a narrative framework but also a profound narrative consciousness that draws upon memory, scientific studies, writers like William Blake and Virginia Woolf, folk stories, and mythology.
Given that so much of this collection is invested in the sort of magic found in fairy tales–references to talking animals, mystical hunters, Prince Charming, enchanted forests, and heroines abound–the true delight of A Bestiary resides in Hoang’s own gift for shifting from subject to subject, not seamlessly, but toward an overwhelming sense of unity. The section breaks in between a description of her sister’s addiction, an introduction to her disparaging ex-husband, and the statement that “[r]ats have been used in laboratories since the early 20th century” are clear divisions between already disparate subjects that all share space on the same page. The reader can make the associative leaps, but the sutures are visible. And how could they not be? In a text that is so concerned with cataloging beast upon beast, it is no wonder that the speaker herself must jump without reservation from one sorrow to another.
What is incredible about Hoang’s collection, though, is how elegantly these pieces are joined together at the end–how with such expansive information and disparate modes of storytelling, readers are left with something tangible and whole, something that contains the full spectrum of Hoang’s experience at a particular time in her life. This works because A Bestiary does not present an arrival insomuch as a cycle. Throughout the text, there are references to the Chinese Zodiac, and Hoang ends A Bestiary with a post-script that begins, “As the fairy tale goes, it is the Rat who crosses the threshold of the Great Race first. And then the Ox. And then the Tiger. And Then the Rabbit,” and so on. Each animal in the Zodiac possesses its own strengths, its own shortcomings. Each animal crosses the finish line in its own way (and with varying degrees of cunning). And once the end is reached–once a pathway is unlocked, a truth realized–the race must begin again. The people in Hoang’s text–her parents, her partners, herself–arrive as we do: for a short while. As the Chinese Zodiac moves through another twelve-year cycle, it is certain that further difficulties await. A Bestiary ends with a nod to the grief that is to come and the richness that will hopefully live inside it.
LILY HOANG is the author of five books, including A Bestiary (winner of the inaugural Cleveland State University Poetry Center’s Nonfiction Contest) and Changing (recipient of a PEN Open Books Award). With Joshua Marie Wilkinson, she edited the anthologyThe Force of What’s Possible: Writers on Accessibility and the Avant-Garde. She is Director of the MFA program at New Mexico State University. She serves as Editor at Puerto del Sol and for Jaded Ibis Press.