Medicine can cure and kill. This dual notion is explored with care and a beauty that borders on the grotesque in Eric Tran’s 2022 poetry collection Mouth, Sugar, & Smoke. Tran, a resident physician in psychiatry at the Mountain Area Health Education Center and a queer Vietnamese American poet, seamlessly blends his varied identities into this collection. Explorations of Vietnamese and diasporic experiences mingle with queer experiences and medical school anecdotes from stanza to stanza as Tran creates a poignant portrait of existence that both touches and arrests.
The poem “Forensics Lab” encapsulates the general sentiment of Mouth, Sugar, & Smoke. It is filled with striking images of medicinal practice, breaking down grotesque actions with salient comparison: “The coroner’s assistant / lays out her knives / like paint brushes and says / leave if we get hot at the neck.” It comments on love, romantic and relational; it reveals personal conflicts to be explored in later poems; it touches the soul and shakes up the system. There are one-liners that arrest and grip, that emphasize the ambiguity of subject and object through the collection. “Sheets so sweat-soaked / they’re too intimate to change.”
Although moments of queer love and medical anecdotes are at the forefront of the collection, Tran does not shy away from the topic of Vietnamese identity. The voice in poems surrounding these themes seems to be hiding behind poetic strategy. With large words and difficult metaphors, there is an ambiguity that can obscure the exact meaning of the piece. Through this poetic scramble, however, the lines that glimmer with power stand out and reveal the themes of the poems without explicitly stating them. “How My Mother Named Me” offers us a possible key: “She wishes she had named me better / in a language we no longer share.”
Tran explores Vietnamese-ness in tandem with queerness, and seamlessly. In “Tops,” a poem detailing the narrator’s sexually dominant experiences (which is immediately followed by a matching poem titled “Bottoms”), Tran speaks to the dual abilities of the Vietnamese language, “In my first favorite tongue / my love can mean to eat, depending / on how I open my throat.” Subtleties hidden in the phrase “first favorite tongue” and “how I open my throat” hint at both Vietnamese experiences and grappling with bilingualism, as well as more salacious readings surrounding queer experiences.
Medicinal topics are also enmeshed with queerness. The narrator touches on experiences both as a student at medical school and teaching others in residencies. With a lightness that is almost out of place, the narrator brings in topics of queer identity and experience as a way of weaving this identity with that of the medical student. “Cadaver Lab” touches on this explicitly: “I book my calendar with hook-ups // as if to practice how blood flows / while it can.”
Yet queerness also stands alone as an important identity, exemplified in the simplicity of the tone and topic in “Apology to my Beloved.” The narrator recounts a relationship with softness and care. Towards the end of the poem, a line reads: “The shit / decaf I bought on sale? I want it if your hands boil the water.” Simple pleasures like these, in a poem placed toward the end of a rather intense and gripping collection, are grounding, and reinvigorate the collection with a human warmth.
The collection is divided into four sections of poems of about ten to fifteen poems each. The second section has a slew of poems titled after various drugs–sedatives and painkillers, muscle relaxers as well as cocaine itself. Two of these poems in tandem offer an interesting insight into the realities of the medical field, both on the patient’s side and the doctor’s. “Papaver Somniferum” (the Latin name for the opium poppy) and “Suboxone” (a treatment for narcotics dependency) are placed beside each other in the collection. The former speaks to a second-person audience as the narrator craves for something lost with a tone of shame to their voice. The poem ends with the line “Fire in my mouth. A whole field alight.” The next poem begins “Fire eater, field seeder.” “Suboxone” flows with a greater softness, emphasizing an internal rhyme and a general feeling of healing throughout. It is through juxtapositions like these that Tran explores the dual reality of the medical experience.
Death is a major underlying topic through the collection. Tran mentions the overdose deaths of friends and explores the ways in which human intervention, or lack thereof, places one’s fate in particular hands. In this exploration, there is a careful creative beauty. A line from the poem “If Asked” particularly exemplifies this: “…death is a test result.”
Eric Tran’s Mouth, Sugar, & Smoke is a sampling of identities presented through a beautiful command of poetic language. The collection explores a plethora of themes through the multifaceted identities of queer, Vietnamese, and medical professional. This unique lens is used to reveal universal realities of life and death, inheritance and generation, and ultimately what it means to love and lose.
Mouth Sugar & Smoke
by Eric Tran
Diode Editions, $18.00
Melina Kritikopoulos is a mixed-race writer and journalist of Greek and Vietnamese descent. She is an undergraduate student at the University of California, Berkeley where she works for The Daily Californian. She produces and hosts the podcast Poetic Pontification, highlighting poets of the East Bay Area.