Nguyen’s debut poetry book This Way to the Sugar is an intelligent and deeply personal interrogation and exploration of identity. His book covers a broad range of topics interrogating sexual, ethnic, familial, and self identity as well as childhood trauma with a deluge of uniquely striking and often disturbing images.
Each topic Nguyen contends with is cracked open and the meat examined. Nguyen isn’t afraid to get dirty. He’s willing to engage with the sickening details of pedophilia in a very up-close and personal way, providing images to support the gritty content as he does in his poem “My First”. The poem dictates an atmosphere of being in a car plunged underwater as he uses aquatic images and metaphors like “school of shiny fish” and “tentacles”. The use the experience o f being underwater fits well with the suffocating, disgusting, murky nature of the memory of pedophilic encounter. Nguyen writes of the “man” in this poem, “Tentacles dripping with grease, glowing / white eyes”, using the tentacles to express the slimy nature of the pedophile. Nguyen is a master of creating setting and content that flow perfectly together in many of his pieces.
Nguyen is not afraid to experiment with format, and uses format well in cooperation with his content. In “Hieu, Huey” Nguyen does this remarkably well, in which the reader must jump between the two columns of words. The format contributes to the idea of being an ethnic name in America, and feeling as if one must change and split ones American and ethnic heritage.
“The Dock” stands out as a particularly memorable piece. It elicits an intriguingly dreamy, somber, and eerie tone. Nguyen deftly establishes this with the introductory lines: “No one wants to go near the lake / that swallowed two more boys”. The poem soon moves to the disturbing, but powerful, metaphor of a boy the speaker is laying next to being covered with flies as they burrow into him. Ending with a few lines that still stick with me: “not a swarm, but a single-file line, a thin braid of black / hair, the longest exhale from a sinking car.”
In a world of lightning-quick, skin deep interactions, Hieu Minh Nguyen’s This Way to the Sugar, is an intimate and unabashed expression of identity and personal experience. As I reached the last poem, “Nostophobia”, I felt that I had the rare privilege, at the very least, to witness a man spatter his soul across the pages of his book.