Taking Apart- “Haunt Me” by Hieu Minh Nguyen & some thoughts on performance poetry

I have a complicated relationship with performance poetry. I used to be a lot more of an active member of our slam team here in Geneseo, and I definitely think that learning more about performance poetry and the technique behind it has helped ground my writing process and also helped me to be experimental with the sonic qualities of my words. Performing poetry has connected me more to my voice. In every sense of that meaning.

My favorite thing about performance poetry is how important body language is to the piece just as much as tone and cadence and speed of speech. In some ways, there is a lot more that can be expressed through performance poetry and the visual & audible aspect of it definitely enhances the experience of the poem.

That being said, I have been missing performance poetry this semester. I have not been able to be as active with the slam team, and as I enter my final semesters here in Geneseo I am all the more enveloped in my page poetry. I’m upset with myself for making it so that I can only be engaged with one or the other. And so, recognizing the importance of both to me, I have decided that my blog post this week will explore a performance piece. I am also going to task myself with finishing a slam poetry piece while I am still working on page poems for this class, and maybe exploring a way to incorporate my physical voice into my source showcase.

Here is the video of Nguyen’s performance of the poem, and I have pasted a text version at the bottom of this post.

This is a great poem. It gives me goosebumps. The personification of memory in this piece is so eerie and real, and there is so much visceral imagery in this piece–from the little boy floating dead in a cement pool, to the heat that “dragged its endless skin across our bones.” What most floored me about this poem was how blatant some of the lines were– “The first memory I had of being molested did not come until 9 years later” what I love about this is that the language for speaking of trauma or sexual assault IS available, but it is nearly impossible to detail or talk about. Further, the shock in the aftermath leaves the victim more prone to discuss what happened in matter-of-fact language.

This poem does a fantastic job detailing the shortcomings of memory, especially in the wake of a traumatic event. “When I think of that year/ no one has a face” captures the difficulty of the memories of childhood sexual abuse not being recalled quickly, or at all–and the torturous process of piecing together these bits of painful memory. Between 1:29 and 1:42, Nguyen speeds up his voice and his tone becomes a lot more urgent, which instills a sense of panic in the audience that the speaker is himself also feeling, trying to understand where these painful memories are coming from: “at first I thought it was a dream/ thought it was a movie/ thought it was my mind filing empty spaces with noise” culminating in the very loud questions, “how how how could you not know, not remember” of other people ignorant to the experience of trauma wanting the victim to just heal and tell them what happened: “give us her name and we will give back your childhood” as if it were this simple. As if this person’s childhood is entirely different now.

The last few lines of this piece push forward an important message about trauma and the experience of healing from sexual trauma–this act of healing is a permanent journey. Trauma is a handprint that we cannot erase. It is a part of our body and our mind until we die. But we can come to understand what happened, and come to reconnect with ourselves and move past childhood experiences.

Text of “Haunt Me” by Hieu Minh Nguyen

For the longest time, the only memories I had of that year

were of little bily from the eighth floor floating dead in the pool

and how angry the rest of the tenants were

when they drained and filled the pool with cement.

or how, that summer the heat dragged its endless skina cross our bones

memory is the funniest character in the story

when i think of that year, no one has a face.

memory is an asshole. it locked my keys in my car, it stole my wallet, its fluent in english  and fucks up everyones name

it stoped watering the plants and took my grandmothers whole body

i wake up every morning grateful my apartment did not burn down

that the kettle whistling into the night was just my mind filling the silence

the first memory I had of being molested did not come until nine years later

at first I thought it a dram/ thought it a movie/ thought it was my mind filling empty spaces with noise

I was just sitting on a bus staring at a stranger’s hands

my memory has failed me

i look for her name and only see hands

i look for her face and only see hands

they say who

they say how

how how how

how could you not know?

how could you not remember?

how could you sleep with her hair in your throat?

how could you how could you how could you

give us her name and we will give you back your childhood

show us where and we will tell you how to heal

if it’s true what they say about memory being a series of rooms

then behind some locked door a wicked apothecary

her hands trapped in jars her hair growing like wild vines along the wall

somewhere in that story i am still a boy

i am 9 years old filing my body with cement to drown out the ghosts

im a statue of a boy

im 23 and all i do is sink

all i do is look for a haunting

my memory an exorcism

my memory a hallway of locked doors

my memory the sun bleaching away the shadows

They say give us proof so i give them my body

They say give us details so I give them my body

which is to say

if you cut me open

if you dissect this trauma

you wil find a pair of handprints

a 9 year old boy

fossilized in cement

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