The Trauma Of The Vietnam War, And A Brother’s Suicide, In Poetry

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Photo: Diana Khoi Nguyen Photo

On this day in 1975, at the tail end of the Vietnam War, there was a dramatic airlift. Thousands of people were evacuated out of Saigon as North Vietnamese troops approached the city. Vietnamese American poet Diana Khoi Nguyen’s parents fled Vietnam. The Denver writer reads from her new book of poetry, “Ghost Of,” that explores the trauma of war and the loss of her brother to suicide.

"Ghost Of" Excerpt 1: I Keep Getting Things Wrong

I keep Getting Things Wrong 

After Mark Levine


My father, just

out of his teens, stands on the roofop

of the embassy in Saigon, his birthplace.

He gives his hand to his mother,

and all around them, a thousand hands reach up

not to wave. None of his siblings died.

Their bodies like a fine chain balled tight

in a fist. They made it out alive.

Why is he looking at me like this?


This is the idea of a house my father built

in Southern California. These two circle windows

and bamboo on all sides. He brought a jungle here,

complete with French doors.

These are the tiles from his mother’s house, cool

against my cheek. I talk to him in one tongue,

he answers from the morgue.


Let’s get on with it.

When I return to that house, I eat the food

left out for my dead brother. I don’t waste much.

I slide open and close his closet, untangle

the window blinds. The bees are quiet in the

walls, now, their colonies dying off.

His shoes on my father’s feet are the only moving thing

in sight.


On their flight to America,

the choice for lunch was rice or pasta, but when

the meal cart reached them, there was only pasta.

My father smiled at the flight attendant and asked,

Why didn’t you reap enough rice?


The certificates we use to be certain of each other:

ID cards, contracts, permits, deeds,

fishing licenses, driving licenses, car titles, carry permits,

registrations, income statements, IOUs, testimonials,

certificates of birth, custody, and death, letters of consent.

Do I have permission to approach

a drowning man from behind?


I dreamed last night, my mother says,

that you were in danger and your brother was young still,

though you were the same

as you are now.

He was looking for me and I was looking for you.


I sit at my desk, typing and deleting


Twice I dreamed I f----d my brother.

I keep trying to wake up. I keep getting things wrong.

I’m ready to feel better.

Excerpt 2: Triptych & Gyotaku

Photo: Diana Khoi Nguyen Text Excerpt 1
Photo: Diana Khoi Nguyen Text Excerpt 2
Photo: Diana Khoi Nguyen Text Excerpt 3
Photo: Diana Khoi Nguyen Text Excerpt 4
Photo: Diana Khoi Nguyen Text Excerpt 5