Van, Lucy. The Open. Cordite Publishing Inc, 2021. RRP: $20.00, 82pp, ISBN: 9780648917601.
The perfect soundtrack for writing this review of Lucy Van’s The Open is, conveniently, provided by the poet herself: Figures, Van’s album of spoken-word poems accompanied by Laila Sakini’s electronic soundscapes. The combination of slow, drawled lines over alternately driving and lulling rhythms and melodies suits Van’s first published collection well. The music is claustrophobic at times, with a repetitive sense of urgency, widening into occasional moments of openness, fluidity, possibility.
The Open is divided into four chapters. The first three (‘Hotel Grand Saigon’, ‘The Esplanade’ and ‘Australian Open I’) are multi-section long poems; the last (‘Australian Open II’) is composed of five individual pieces. Van’s offerings in this collection are, for the most part, styled as prose poems.
The first part of the collection focuses on a visit to Vietnam, the country Van was ‘smuggled’ (7) from to arrive in Australia. Across various scenes of exploring the country and the past, Van’s speaker interrogates the fraught positionality of a person returning to one formerly colonised land from another. As a guest at a colonial-era hotel, she ruminates on her discomfort: ‘I am jealous over these bodies and these languages. The confidence with which one can call for a towel’ (4). Hotel staff serve her every need and Van is acutely aware of her liminal position in this place, that ‘this is this way because I am from a rich country. I am from a rich country because I was smuggled over from this poor one’ (7). This chapter of the book is permeated with this uncomfortable awareness of being ‘in the way’ rather than truly belonging, as well as with personal memory and family history.
Moments of unsettling past violence and instability then enter the text, with attendant fire, explosions and lines like ‘Uncle Tuong didn’t fight back but sat on the floor and took off his shirt and cried’ (6) signalling the overlap of political and personal histories. This overlap continues throughout this section, in various ways. Awkward encounters with Van’s extended family or difficult moments with her father are interwoven with depictions of rising capitalism or the effects of foreign imperialism. She writes ‘an early Vietnamese historian characterised his people as intellectually inferior to the French, capable of great imagination in the literary sphere but weak in the superior procedures of reason’ (16) and finds in this problematic dichotomy a complex link to interactions with her father: ‘the conversations are so terrible. So full of the procedures of reason’ (16).
Layered upon this personal-political overlap is the continual intrusion of past upon present and vice-versa. For example, an extended recollection of a story about her father and grandfather (her ‘Ông nội’) is interrupted with ‘but I always thought I was to call him Up nội […] but google “up nội” and you get this translation: “put the pot upside down”’ (17). Here, just as it seems the speaker is claiming some comfort, some familiarity in a family memory, this is undermined, in a self-reflexive suggestion of the impossibility (for the speaker) of achieving solidity in her family identity. Through the fragmented structure of the chapter’s parts, the linking of personal and political and the moment-specific but timeline-unbound style of her writing, Van skilfully interrogates the fluidity and instability of identity.
Proper excavation of this fluidity takes honesty and openness. In her preface, Van writes ‘privacy fascinates me’, although ‘the poems here express indignation at the eventual consequences of privacy’ (ix). In the first chapter, these consequences may include the complexity and difficulty of Van’s relationships with her seemingly closed-off father and distant family.
From there, the following chapters of The Open continue to problematise the notion of privacy and are as self-reflexive and open as the first. The specific moments of these chapters occur mostly in Australia, but speak to similar themes of complex, unstable memory and identity. ‘The Esplanade’ opens with an ingeniously multi-layered metaphor:
‘The only thing I am sorry about,’ she said, ‘is that many of the photographs came back clear. When a negative cannot be restored it comes back clear.’
Some memories are clearer than others. Some come back clear. Some of the clearest memories involve the ocean. (23)
The ambiguity of this passage is sharply intelligent; in this collection, clarity has the potential to be both a relief and an impediment. Memory and how particular moments are recalled become, in this way, a sort of decision in the text. Places, too, become filled with whichever memories the poet decides to relate them to. Perth’s Esplanade Reserve is a particularly apt site for this fluidity of relation; to Van’s speaker it is a place of both youth and experience, a place to take drugs and play frisbee, to wander.
And now, of course, it’s been replaced by Elizabeth Quay, overwritten by new possibilities.
Further to this fluidity of relation to memory or to place, in these ‘Australian’ chapters Van investigates the possibilities of fluidity in one’s own identity. At The Australian Open, she and her son ‘posed in our idea of gentlemen’ (39), while the ‘specific steps to a court being constructed’ (40) could be read as a metaphor for the steps taken in deciding how to be. The fluid construction of self, in this representation, often involves deletion: ‘Trees and foliage / have to be / removed’ and ‘excavation and suspension / are often necessary’ (40). Doors, which make their appearance as a key motif in the first chapter, remain present throughout the book as part of this constructive/destructive process. Naturally, they represent changes in scenery and changes in self, but in a complex way. In the poem ‘George’s Door’, Van’s figurative skill is on display again: the ‘security door lets the light in, but shields the people indoors from the view of those outdoors’ (51). This is a challenge to privacy and an example of those decisions involved in fluid identity and memory: to evolve, to step through the door and gain clarity, you must reject privacy and open yourself to be seen.
As with most of her rhythmic phrases in Figures, Van’s style in this book involves deceptively direct and prose-like phrasing. These prosaic lines are therefore marked as poetry less by form than by diction, by repetition, by careful selection of specific, evocative moments which combine to form a patchwork of complex personal, family and political histories; fluid identity; and careful honesty. These moments, alone, may seem disjunct; together, they create a collection of sharp intelligence, cutting self-awareness and broad possibility. The Open is so complex as to be almost dense in its thought and its idiosyncrasies; but it is also—as the title suggests—open, in both its honesty and its capacity to encourage and sustain readings from many angles of approach.
Laila Sakini and Lucy Van. Figures, Purely Physical Teeny Tapes, 2017.
Riley Faulds is a student of Agricultural Science and English at The University of Western Australia. His poems have appeared in Rabbit, Westerly and the birthday cards of family and friends. He was a participant in the 2019 Westerly Writers’ Development Program and is the 2021 Editor of Pelican Magazine.