Book Review: Come Clean by Joshua Nguyen

Come Clean by Joshua Nguyen (University of Wisconsin Press, 2021)

In his debut poetry collection, Come Clean, Joshua Nguyen isn’t afraid to get messy, inviting us into a space that has memory strewn all over the place, and together, we are tasked with what to do and what to make of all this memory. With many references to Marie Kondo, Nguyen gives us access to the aching process of categorizing, filing, and stashing memory away. It is an imperfect art. Nguyen takes memory back out and recategorizes it. Throughout the collection, it is almost in real time that we watch Nguyen arrange and rearrange memory, taking all the messy threads of memory and laying them straight

The way the poems interact with one another feel like a reassembly of the past. Every detail is carefully catalogued, offering a precise picture of what once was. The opening poem describes the process of organizing and putting away a grandmother’s earthly belonging post-death. There is a “box for the herbs”, a “box for the knives”, a “box for her pearls”, etc. Each detail provides a unique insight of the speaker’s grandmother and reassembles what her life on earth might have looked like, what that life leaves behind.

In “Wisconsin Has a Place in My Heart & I Just Want to Let Go”, Nguyen rebuilds a scene that we will keep revisiting throughout the rest of the collection. He describes a traumatic memory that occurs in a basement in Wisconsin during a snowstorm. As the collection unfolds, so does the memory, and Nguyen offers us adjustments of that memory and more details about the basement: the dust on the floor, that it was in fact not in Wisconsin, but “a much colder place, let’s say Washington”, and the sounds of some laundry being washed. We are also offered more details about the events that transpire, from the cousin’s hot breath on the neck to the cousin pinning the speaker of the poem down to the floor. The slow unveiling of this scene is almost cinematic, each poem like a double exposure on the same film, and it serves a dual purpose, allowing the reader to witness a heartbreaking trauma in smaller, more digestible chunks, while also giving the speaker grace to relive the memory in less devastating force.

What is striking about the collection is its fearless experimentation with form. In “Marie Kondo Is My Hero”, Nguyen presents a 2×6 table of 12 boxes total. In this three page poem, the 2×6 table repeats itself in each page, and on each page, new words appear in the boxes. By the final iteration, all the words have been correctly sorted into their boxes, and the poem is complete. With this form, it feels like Nguyen is offering us a peek into a poetic process. It is almost as if this poem came to Nguyen in the form of a bucket of mixed up puzzle pieces, and his task was to render them into a complete picture.

Some of the experiments in form showcase Nguyen’s sense of humor. In “Google Calendar for My Imposter Syndrome”, the poem is a screenshot of a calendar, where the appointments reassemble a typical week in the life of a poet with imposter syndrome and showcase an attempt to catalogue, categorize, and organize time. Imposter syndrome seems suddenly comically manageable, with appointments like “Comments For Other poets who are better than me” and “Office Hours That You Hope No One Goes To”. The notes in some of the appointments also offer a window in the psyche of a poet with imposter syndrome, with messy thoughts that are still contained in a time slot designated for those messy thoughts.

Come Clean offers a unique methodology, using language to facilitate the process of compartmentalizing trauma and grief. The collection is bold in its refusal to forget its trauma and grief, the refusal to sweep it all under a rug. Instead, Nguyen takes each broken piece of it and holds it properly up to the light, allows it to take up as much space as it needs, reassembles it back into something resembling the whole, and finally, puts it away carefully. Unafraid to show his work, we get down and dirty right alongside Nguyen through the whole process, but given Nguyen’s masterful arrangement of language, we all walk away clean.

Come Clean
by Joshua Nguyen
University of Wisconsin Press, $16.95

PEN America 2021 Emerging Voices winner Kimberly Nguyen by Beowulf Sheehan

Kimberly Nguyễn is a Vietnamese-American diaspora poet originally from Omaha, Nebraska now living in New York City. Her work can be found in Hobart, Muzzle Magazine, The Minnesota Review, and more. She was a recipient of a Beatrice Daw Brown Prize and a finalist for Frontier’s 2021 OPEN and New Poets Award as well as Palette Poetry’s 2021 Previously Published Poem Prize. She was a 2021 Emerging Voices Fellow at PEN America, and she has a forthcoming collection in Fall 2022.


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