The Protection of Ghosts, Natalie Linh Bolderston

V. Press, 2019 £6.50

Hope follows a casting out

Bolderston reflects on the traumatic aftermath of political events in Vietnam. I read the poems as haunting reflections on exile, homesickness and redemptive hope.

Mother and grandmother are brought to life in stories and nightmares, a thread of foreboding woven into the wordplay. The mother language peppers the pamphlet, heightening the sense of loss.

In ‘I watch my mother peel longan fruits’ the mother ‘is thinking / of a long-ago rooftop’ and ‘pollen fuzzing her summer áo dài ’. She ‘detects the threat of lies / a mosquito humming on her neck’. The horror of seeking refuge is compounded in these lines:

The night she leaves smells like sweet rot.
The family drives through back roads

dark as the mouths of dogs. Her mother’s hands
fumble with the ghosts of longans.

This theme continues in ‘My mother’s nightmares’ where ‘the sky is a paper / bruise, and it is always 1978.’ Her family members rise through the lines from a river, as a boat-rat, as a plum tree. Flower beds become caves.

However, the poems offer hope that love overcomes disorientation and fear. The best of each generation is inherited by the next.

In ‘From Bà cố to Bà Ngoại’ the great-grandmother calls out a message of hope to her darling daughter who has fled the home country:

The country will not know your name.
When your children forget my name, remind them:
I am not just someone who used to love you.

And the poem ends:

show me the shape of the water you crossed,
the blue air in your lungs.

Finally, ‘Aubade’ reads as a prayer-poem. The beautiful lines evoke the practices, foodstuffs and habits of the lost life. The narrator asks the exiled and emigrant generations to remember and continue these customs. Imagine daughters cooking:

See the chrysanthemums,
lilies, wild roses awaken at their silk shirts, the gold peeking
from beneath their sleeves.

Let red candlewax drip
onto the persimmon tower, melted sunrise.

Maggie Mackay