Christopher R. Vaughan
Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 2017. 110 pages. $16.95.
In his seminal Souls of Black Folk (1903), W.E.B. Du Bois defined the concept of “double-consciousness”:
It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness, an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.
In a different time and place, Du Bois’s construct fuels Bao Phi’s second collection of poems, Thousand Star Hotel. At once tender and taboo-busting, pithy and sprawling, effulgent and expository, Thousand Star Hotel is a compendium of “warring ideals” spoken through the voices and seen through the eyes of a refugee child turned poet adult, his embattled parents, neighborhood pals and bullies, past flames and would-be lovers, an exotifying culture—not to mention Phi’s young daughter, for whom the collection is a record with which she might one day construct her own consciousness. Yet Phi has brought Du Bois’s concept into new terrain, transfiguring double-consciousness into a powerful multi-consciousness.
Phi, a Vietnamese-American prize-winning slam poet born in Saigon and raised in Minneapolis, begins in childhood. In “Vocabulary” the poet’s big-box job (sketched with not a little slaughterhouse imagery) tasks him with corralling shopping carts. One day, a fellow worker, also a poor young man of color, opens up about his long-missed girlfriend and their previous night’s passionate reunion:
He said it like their love
saturated every atom of his being,
and shook him,
as if all his veins were laid bare
to weep at the memory of her,
as if his ache for her was a chasm
he could never hope to cross. . . .
While the virgin narrator makes a weak show of sympathy, the other boy stomps away sobbing, ashamed at his moment of vulnerability. “Now, over twenty years later,” Phi considers the chasms he must cross:
I make my living with words.
But all I can say about the bombs that sought my family
is: they missed us.
I still can’t reach out to my friends, especially my fellow straight boys,
Their eyes the size of stop signs.
He thinks of how that boy discovered “the vocabulary to overcome himself,” and wonders “if I will ever find a language / to speak of the things that haunt me the most.”
The hauntings cross generations. Phi thrusts us into childhood scenes alongside his parents then deftly takes us to the present, where he can reckon freshly with their meaning. In “Go to Where the Love Is,” the poet’s mother tends her urban garden against the incursions of neighborhood kids hurling slurs and drug-hunting police. A bitter fatalism sprouts:
The worst powerlessness
is when wicked men and boys
come for your family
and you can do nothing.
Now behind her high fence
she gives cucumbers to my daughter,
asks me to fix her Vietnamese cable channels.
I don’t know how.
She says she’ll die in Vietnam.
She has always said this.
“Lead” portrays the poet’s father, three decades back, with a sort of magic realism warped into reality. Patching vandals’ holes in their property’s fence, he swats away what he thinks are mosquitoes, then
hollers for me to look around
for a shooter
like it’s the dmz
claims someone is shooting a bb gun at his back.
Phi is unbelieving, “even when I see dull lead fragments sticking / into his brown skin.” Yet if “My dad had a son who believed in invisible mosquitoes / more than the evil of men,” such scenes are part of a growing consciousness of the racist violence no garden fence or patching could ward off.
A multiple-time National Poetry Slam finalist, Phi brings to his work a slam poet’s duty to expose, to flaunt taboo, to indict society’s depredations via ironic twist and jarring juxtaposition. There’s the scene of everyday police brutality in “Rolling through a Four-Way,” in which a fully and bitterly realized consciousness implicates another generation—his daughter, strapped in a car seat during a gun-tense pullover. The litany “Our Minnesota” reconstitutes boyhood haunts and city characters now ever more threatened by gentrification. “The Why” puts him back in his neighborhood in a different way. Spurred by a prison reading whose audience, it turns out, is mostly guys from his old Phillips neighborhood, the poet makes a commitment. He’ll get down, for his daughter’s sake,
some record of this man—
sashimi-thin when the world doesn’t want to see me,
fatty pork when they need to hate me. . . .
For the same society that will have Phi alternately be “sashimi-thin” or “fatty pork” knows Asian culture mainly as an exotic “Oriental Flavor,” as in that devastating prose-poem anaphora: “Oriental flavor must be a sidekick flavor / tastes like the margin not the center . . . tastes like a cop racially profiling Hmong / Cambodian / Pacific Islanders / Vietnamese / Chinese / Black / Indian / Latinx people.” In a twist on the age-old portrayal of the other, Phi continually adopts the voice of another gazing upon him, using this voice to expose the very assumptions themselves. Yet the deployment of a string of ethnicities seems to call for crossracial resistance. From double-consciousness to multi-consciousness, and from consciousness to action.
What constitutes action, exactly? In Du Bois’s formulation, “He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without having the doors of opportunity closed roughly in his face.” For Phi, how to move forward is a dilemma he most wrestles with through poems (“Tourist with Daughter,” “Contour”) in which the writer refracts his consciousness through his young daughter’s eyes. To what extent must he share hard truths that might pierce her child’s bubble of “clouds” and “boats,” of “sour corn syrup sticky candy”? If he fears
I’m spoiling her.
Then I remember what family she comes from
and I think to myself,
let her have,
and throw away.
As a father the poet can better understand all that he carries, but as his own consciousness gains new layers it complicates the parts he wishes to pass on. Still, the collection’s final half dozen poems hint at a way forward. “Being Asian in America” (with its title echoing the epic Angels in America) is the rare short poem:
Survive long enough
Revolution might denote the stubborn cycles of pain and plunder witnessed throughout Thousand Star Hotel. Or could it be resilience gathering a transformative momentum? In “Untitled / Fathers,” an earlier fatalism fades, at least momentarily, to something like hope. “Maybe the important thing,” Phi addresses his daughter, “is that you made me realize I just want a better world for you to be a part of. . . . Every moment after that is to be determined.”