Someone call the Men in Black
This post is part of my 2022 poetry reading challenge — in which I challenge myself to read the Poetry Foundation’s “Poem of the Day” for 7 days each month, and come here to write about it.
Today is day 6 of July’s reading week, and the little green men are here.
Thank you for reading!
Hieu Minh Nguyen is a queer Vietnamese American poet and performer. He is the author of two poetry collections (Not Here, 2018, and This Way to the Sugar, 2014). His poetry regularly appears in several prestigious publications.
In 2018 he was awarded the Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation, and in 2017 received a NEA Fellowship. He is currently poetry editor at Muzzle magazine.
Probe is a relatively short poem, but it is certainly gripping. It also deals with a theme that I haven’t seen often in poetry: aliens.
The poem begins with Nguyen describing a scene from “a movie [he has] never seen”, in which a “small-town drunk” wakes up believing he has been abducted by aliens. What they did is described first as “something strange”, a phrase so vague and nondescript that suggests the reality is so surreal (or, perhaps, frightening) that it cannot be comprehended, never mind written down.
However, he goes on. The man tells us “a hole opened”, and suddenly, his experiences come pouring out, as if whatever the aliens did has broken some sort of floodgates within him.
[He] said cold light
cauterized him shut, redefined that red theory, chrome instrument
turned him into a skinless puzzle, a scrambled egg
sealed back into its shell.
Nguyen’s writing is not graphic, or gory; but somehow still viscerally vivid as he creates an image which is even more horrifying for its uncertainty. We don’t know what exactly the aliens did; Nguyen merely drops hints. Something was “cauterized”, suggesting the horrific smell of burning flesh; something “redefined that red theory”, implying organs scrambled in a grizzled, gory mess. The aliens stripped him “skinless”, implying a torture that would be enough to break anyone.
This scene plays into a trope that everyone is familiar with — alien probes — and utilises this trope effectively, so that we have a detailed picture in front of our mental eye without Nguyen ever having to be explicit. This lets us focus, instead, on the aftermath of the aliens’ probing.
No one could have their “red theory” rearranged and yet still stay the same person they were before, and this is true for Nguyen’s subject, too. He has been turned into “a scrambled egg / sealed back into its shell.” Again, this language is, at best, indirect. Is the man physically damaged, internally ravaged by the probing? Or is this, rather, a mental consequence, a slip into insanity? Is this man suffering from the mental anguish of having his entire worldview ripped apart, and put together again in incomprehensible and indescribable ways?
There is one line which suggests this is so. This line is my favourite of the whole poem — and, in fact, is up there with favourite lines of all time.
Madness, too, can be accumulative.
Sometimes, it is not just one event which triggers insanity. Sometimes, it is the sum total of a hundred, a thousand little events.
Now, this is where things get interesting.
Suddenly, the perspective switches: Nguyen is no longer talking about the experiences of a movie character, but rather about his own experiences. This seamless transition suggests that maybe, just maybe, Nguyen was talking about his own experiences all along — only they are so horrifying that he is unable to recount them except by pretending they happened to someone else.
He describes how his “blood seemed uncontrollable”; it “ran messy with pulp / down their fingers”. As well as being in back in the first person perspective, we have a more graphic style of writing; we have more gore. To me, this feels almost as if the narrator is losing control, distressed by the traumatising memories: he is so anguished by the experience that he breaks his metaphor, breaks into first person, and now the real gore and horror is coming to light.
Has Nguyen seen aliens, then?
Finally, dramatically, we find out who “they” are.
my cousins finally left the room, laughing
closing the basement door behind them.
This whole alien encounter is a metaphor for torture experienced at the hands of family, people who are supposed to love and protect. The real explanation, the knowledge that his family betrayed him and hurt him, is so harrowing that the narrator cannot accept it — so he created a metaphor in his head equating his experience to an alien abduction. This is very reminiscent of yesterday’s poem, “My Mother is a Fish” by Peter Balakian, in which the narrator finds his mother’s death so painful that he is unable to comprehend it except via metaphor.
This is the end of Nguyen’s poem. Emotional and dramatic, it certainly packs a punch; it also leaves us wondering: why? Why did his cousins betray him? Why did all of this happen?
Nguyen gives no answers, but to me, there is only one answer: the narrator suffered because he was different.
Different — whether in sexuality, gender, race, or anything else — is a danger. We have explored this in another poem this week, too, in Letter to the Local Police by June Jordan. Nguyen gives no hints as to what the difference between his narrator and the cousins may be, but the whole concept of ‘otherness’ is supported by the very premise of this poem: after all, what is more ‘other’ than an alien?
Nguyen is making a comment on how society attacks people who are different in any way, and I for one am here for it.
More social commentary through alien metaphors, please!
Nguyen is another new poet to me, but one that I will definitely be exploring more after reading this poem. I found Probe a very well-thought out, emotional story, with every well-placed word contributing to the horror, the emotion, the harrowing story of family betrayal.
What did you think? Let me know in the responses.
For now, goodbye — until tomorrow, for our final poem of this month’s reading week.