cover image The Old Philosopher

The Old Philosopher

Vi Khi Nao. Nightboat (UPNE, dist.), $15.95 trade paper (80p) ISBN 978-1-937658-48-9

Fiction writer Nao (Swans in Half-Mourning), winner of the 2014 Nightboat Poetry Prize, makes her poetry debut with a sexually raw collection that sparkles with unexpected imagery, as if “a conflicting/ Mixture of lavender and walleye.” The book is replete with experiments in narrative lyric, and aside from a handful of shorter pieces, most of the poems tend to be longer and discursive. In “My Socialist Saliva,” Nao wanders through memories of her birthplace in Vietnam, one filled with both violence and staggering beauty. “My mother rode me on land coated with rambutans/ Rambutans were like little ball hearts glowing red hair/ The earth of Long Khanh was swollen with such cardiovascular beauties/ My little heart was a little engine/ Of red earth.” Elsewhere, she pulls deeply from the realm of lust and love, as well as the tension between pain and pleasure in sex: “you knew i/ knew that love was made of dust & light & maybe nails/ where the hammer walked away & then returned.” But it is when Nao moves beyond the erotic and explores the sophisticated landscape of memory, family, and poetic form that her work feels most alive, honest and energetic; in these pieces, it seems, breath “skips a step on the stairs of breathing.” (May)