All the Flowers Kneeling by Paul Tran review – a confrontation of pain and poetic form

The aftermath of abuse is met head-on by subtle and delicate skill in the Vietnamese-American poet’s debut collection

Sometimes, reading a poet for the first time is like meeting a person: the first impression is defining. That is what Paul Tran’s debut is like. A queer, transgender Vietnamese American – such labelling scarcely serves as an introduction – their presence on the page is instantly dramatic: there is a gorgeous sensuality to the writing but a reason for readers to stay alert, to be on guard. A story of sexual abuse is unfolding – Tran was raped in their first year at college – and this is a complicated, nonspecific confessional that extends to abuse of Tran’s mother and abuse endured in childhood, underpinned by an intense quality of performance at every turn. All the Flowers Kneeling might not convince you as a title (the literal gardener in me objects) but, even within the fey wording, there is an embattled supplication to which you find yourself paying attention.

The collection opens with Orchard of Knowing, an encounter based on the story of the Buddha and the brigand who collected 1,000 human fingers – in a bid to be allowed home from exile – before being converted. There is an imperative clarity to it and the line that stands out is: “when you detach from your received idea of purpose”. Tran’s own work is filled with purpose yet with a threat of self-erasure ever-present. There is a momentum, a thespian verve that does not mask the work’s integrity. There is courage in their ongoing confrontation with pain. One of the questions that arises is: can trauma be contained by form – and how? In the book’s most impressive 13-poem sequence, I See Not Stars But Their Light Reaching Across the Distance Between Us, the acrostic is meticulously reconfigured. Each poem is 13 lines long and each line contains 13 words. If you read each poem vertically, you can collect a complete sentence as you read the first word of every line. The last line of the poem then dictates the following poem as the form is repeated.

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