Books: 'This Way to the Sugar,' a New Poetry Collection by Hieu Minh Nguyen

April 4, 2014


Perhaps my body would make more sense /
if you cut it open.

Hieu Minh
’s debut collection of poetry, This
Way To The Sugar
, is cannibalistically aware of the blood beneath the skin.
It depicts the body not as a site of comfort, but as a weapon, a haunted house,
a meal. Sex becomes surgery: “later, when he’s pulling out / my spine with
whatever instrument / makes the least amount of noise...” And sex happens in
scenery as memorable as it is isolating: internet chatrooms, hotel rooms, a car
at the bottom of the ocean.

Nguyen writes
about the memories that still haunt long after they’ve been buried, those
twilit half-recollections of childhood. Each section opens with lines from
children’s books that, put in the context of the poems, carry profound, disturbing
meaning. This device is fitting, in a book centered on the reinterpretation of
childhood through the lens of adulthood—those harmless-seeming moments that
gain dark significance once innocence is lost. 

This Way To The Sugar agrees with Where The Wild Things Are author Maurice Sendak, who said: “I
remember my own childhood vividly... I knew terrible things. But I knew I
musn’t let adults know I knew. It would scare them.” Just so, Nguyen insists on
the concomitance of sexuality and childhood. He depicts a young boy giving his
abusive teacher a peach, which she slurps from his hands. He shows us a
fourteen-year-old, “breath fogging up the computer screen like a wet ghost,”
seducing a forty-three year old man on the internet.

Interwoven with
these themes of memory and sexuality, Nguyen writes of his family, the
“Vietnamese lullaby sung to an empty bed,” and his love for and simultaneous
isolation from his mother. In “Tater Tot Hotdish,” he describes his family’s
displacement and assimilation into white culture: “Vietnam / became a place our
family pitied, a thirsty rat / with hair too dark and a scowl too thick.” 

This Way To The Sugar’s genius lies in its careful attention
to intersectionality. It is as much a story about a Vietnamese-American boy as
it is about a queer one. Nowhere is this better exemplified than in the poem
“Ladyboy Theater,” which describes a sexual encounter between the narrator and
a white man:


boy      lathers
in a tub of saké.

boy      fresh
off the poppers.

boy      mail

boy      the
wrong package.

boy      dog
collar made from jade.

boy      rice
wine enema.

boy      napalm


Nguyen’s writing
is by turns electrifying and somber, heartrending and triumphant. He packs a
devastating amount of emotion into just a few words, and each poem bristles
with striking images: “the year guided / by a burning building instead / of a
lighthouse.” It is clear from his talent that we will be seeing important work
from him for years to come.


Rachel Rostad is a writer, activist, and
Korean adoptee. If you like what you read, check her out on