L.J.'s Reviews > Four Letter Words

Four Letter Words by Truong Tran
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Jul 18, 08

bookshelves: poetry
Read in June, 2008

four letter words, by Truong Tran
reviewed by L.J. Moore
115pp. Apogee Press (www.apogeepress.com). US$18.95. 0978766733 paper

The Poem as Porn

Truong Tran's new book of poetry, four letter words, is a fierce, outraged epic of betrayal. Its language is a choked lyric, its subject: the crime of political rape. The hero is the silent victim, who, like an incest sufferer, or as Tran names him, "the redheaded stepchild", finds himself stripped of his personhood and used as a pornographic synecdoche, by "an overt omission of the interior" (p10), valued for what he looks to be rather than who he actually is.

The villains in the book are of two types, the overt and the covert, and are named in the opening and closing poems, which are written as ciphers. The first cipher names a villain in the form of a bumbling "king"—he is a Machiavellian self-deceiver—the kind who pretends his porn is art. Perhaps he can't tell the difference. The closing cipher reveals the player Tran finds more poisonous—the villainess, the grande dame who, like Lady Macbeth, is politically driven and knows exactly what she is doing. The victim is her adopted child, who is sacrificed with the tacit approval of silent witnesses.

But four letter words is not primarily concerned with the crime, it is the epic of the aftermath. The villain and villainess take backstage to more compelling story of the hero, who is literally writing his way, not toward understanding (screw that—his villains don't deserve it and wouldn't understand it) , but toward a reclaimed self. Finding himself relegated to a pornographic existence, he does the opposite of what a someone without substance (as they have tried to make him into) would do: he complicates, he perseverates, he despairs, he rails and laments, he decries, he questions, he invents, he wishes this "never happened, I wish this never happened, I wish this never happened"(p67), and when that doesn't work, he despairs "imagine a library full of porn—so many shades of grey so overwhelmingly grey." (p66) He allows himself to entertain the idea that the valuable things we create—relationships, books, art, the idea of self—can be so easily destroyed, that this beautiful "table … I helped build it look at the corners tongue and groove not a single nail the construction alone will stand many lifetimes… would break under the weight of two porn guys going at it… I bet it would with enough pounding (p71). Once he gets started, Tran opens up full bore, daring to explore in a lyric release, the very human experience of being dehumanized.

Four letter words is divided into five books: that, lies, lost book, real, and this-- five approaches that explore the ways we handle appearances, and taken collectively, reveal that our mental distinctions we constantly make, and which form the difference between a specific person (this) and a stereotype (that), can be a function of something as simple (and devastating) as their mental proximity: (this) connoting something close-by, real, here, and belonging, while (that) is over there, at a distance, and other. Tran deliberately exchanges and confuses this with that, pointing out the malleable nature of the chasm "this, as a construct, was plagued with politics, dry rot and lies that this at best was a hopeful illusion that this in reality was just about that" (p48 italics are mine).

The passion of the writing stands out in poem after poem, as he tries on all the possible ways to break down the story, to decode the crime, to find a path through the despair, using allegory, fable, abcedary, word square, passion play, graffiti, rant, blank verse, free verse, rhyme, spoken word, prose poem, horizontal and vertical constructions, transparent pages, ciphers, prayers, incantations… over and over driving the point home to look beyond the surface, to "think of it what you think of it a word to build upon a plot a place to call it what it is here and where you feed and face and find fade the word into subject fact into fiction "(56).

At the center of Tran's five books, is the lost book—a deliberate hinge-pin or keystone where the words themselves form the path by which the hero finds his way back by reversing the connotation of pornography as negative by finding that poetry is porn in that it represents without fully encompassing, but that it's function is the opposite in that it suggests a more expansive meaning in its representation, rather than a lack thereof, and that by gratifying the reader, as porn does, the poem is not diminished but itself, enriched:

poem as
porn as prayer
in writing
this poem
he incites
in seeing
this porn
he saw for
the first time
in saying
this prayer
he finds
in the word
from this
from that


This poem, while not an overt turning point, is one of the moments when the momentum begins to shift. The tone becomes less desperate. The writing is flying out, and the sense of being stopped up and gagged has released—he has written himself to a new way of looking. As the poet puts it, "language is a tapestry to be unraveled that words are hidden found in the folds that the book is broken the meaning revealed" (90).

The sense of regret is never given over—the hero does not come home vindicated. The villains are neither confronted nor punished, and Tran still laments in the penultimate poem that he would take it all back every word, if this had never happened (p114), but the discovery of a new perspective is no small triumph, and the book itself is a huge one.
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message 1: by Meg (last edited Jul 19, 2008 12:56PM) (new)

Meg The book and review are both exacting and exact. The truth, however painful, has produced a work of intense force from a writer of genius who was just disingenuous enough to believe that those who proclaim that they work on behalf of the muse are necessarily inclusive of their kin (be they blood, half, or adoptive in relationship). Let us not forget the lessons of the Greeks and that master of dramatic irony, Shakespeare, when it comes to tragedy and comedy.

What we are never allowed to forget in this work and in the resulting review is that the Greeks and their archetypes did not begin something: they simply noted (and displayed for the notice of those of us less capable of expressing ourselves dramatically) the fact that archetypes are such because they have always been and will always be in existence. Lest we forget, we are nevertheless instantly reminded by their betrayals and the putative noises they make to suggest an automatic inclusion as a member in their punitive little gang(s). The Crips and Bloods have not disappeared to the view of us more well-heeled folk: they are just lurching about in post-constuctionist black. Historically, one thinks of Oedipus, Othello, the young Dane, and ultimately the line from The Merchant of Venice: "If you prick us do we not bleed?" Rather, with the beginning and end notes, or perhaps more appropriately, the "end-papers" of the book, one is really reminded rather of how little importance the adoptive parents are to this tour de force. As Albee has Martha chime, in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? - "Clink." Unless, of course, the "end-papers" are even less substantial even than George and Martha: The Red Queen flogging us with her favorite flamingo? Brava to the reviewer, and an even more substantial Bravo to the man who wrote this book.

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