This Way to the Sugar by Hieu Minh Nguyen
Published March 2014, Read April 2017
Rating: ♥♥♥♥ (of 5)
“Have you heard of boys
who turn wolf in moonlight?
Or the women who turn mother
at the foot of a hospital bed?”
I was surprised by This Way to the Sugar, which honestly takes a lot with a poetry collection. I’ve read such a limited amount that I go in expecting almost anything, but Hieu Minh Nguyen achieved a rare thing. His collection is deeply personal, and yet his words and form allow us to dig into the souls of those that surround him. In other works, if we’re lucky, we’re afforded only small glimpses, but Nguyen let’s us see people he loves and hates in a light we rarely experience as readers.
Nguyen is a master of form. This may seem an odd thing in an era of poetry that seems to lack form (it really doesn’t, it only appears such). Few people are writing sonnets or in iambic pentameter or using the rhyming schemes we all learned in public school–A B A B, A B C A, etc. But modern poets are actually quite adept at manipulating form to achieve their ends, especially Nguyen. Often form is a pleasant, secondary effort to the carefully chosen words and phrases, but in This Way To Sugar, the form is often more powerful than the words. For example, in “Arrangement,” the second line of each stanza becomes the first line in the next, building an almost circular feel, revealing the cycle of dehumanization involved in Nguyen’s experiences with an attempted arranged marriage.
This Way to the Sugar focuses well on the intense feelings of young sexuality and the dangerous vulnerability of young people, especially LGBT individuals, as they mature sexually. As Nguyen described his clandestine online interactions and meetings with older men as a young man (truly a boy), I held my breath. I partially recognized these feelings from my own teenage years, but as a straight female, the danger was different. Our poet pulled me intimately close to him so that I could understand as best I could the cliff Nguyen and other young gay men hung over. These poems made me uncomfortable because he was so effective at placing me in the midst of his vulnerability.
Oddly, a theme Hieu Minh Nguyen writes about with stunning clarity is motherhood. His mother features heavily in his collection, with several poems hovering delicately over her subject position. Nguyen himself seems to be trying to tease out what it means to be a mother, especially a Vietnamese mother to a son whose sexuality she cannot understand or accept. He begins the series with a poem about his birth and its less-than auspicious circumstances and concludes with a piece centered around his mother’s inevitable death.
With this and other intelligent decisions, the ordering of the poems in this book is some of the best I’ve read. As we progress from piece to piece, there is this teasing out of each theme that expands and expands, until the end where we feel as if we’re inhabiting a small corner of Nguyen’s very soul.