Review by Katharine Coldiron
“A pack of dogs. A swarm of insects. A mischief of rats. / You desire the human equivalent.” So reads one of many fragments in Lily Hoang’s extraordinary new book, A Bestiary, released in April by Cleveland State University Poetry Center. The book won the press’s 2015 essay collection competition, and the confusion inherent in a poetry press’s holding an essay collection contest seems appropriate when considering A Bestiary, which straddles genre lines defiantly, proudly. The book is brief, only 150 pages, and its contents are also brief; its essays are composed sometimes of single sentences punctuated by section breaks. But every word is a shout. Every phrase echoes against multiple surfaces of meaning.
A Bestiary is nominally a memoir in fragments, but it is also an exploration of the power of fragmentation itself. Some of the essays utilize a braiding technique, switching from personal experience to fact to folktale and then wrapping those elements around each other in a swirl of shared meaning. But the threads are so narrow that the result more closely resembles a coat of many colors than a braid. It’s all of a piece, and enough to cover, usefully, rather than to hang motionless down one’s back.
Hoang clothes her personal tragedies in gorgeous language, and often in a blackly comic tone. “Every time we talk, Megan says something about how great my life is. / / As I flail.” She flails through death, illness, racism (and cultural invisibility), domestic violence, and the addictions of loved ones. Throughout, she maintains a clear, impatient intelligence, both inside her memories and in the precise endeavor of recording those memories. The bestiary, occupied mainly by rats but also inhabited by the animals of the Chinese zodiac and quite a few animals of the human variety, is organized according to a secret choreography of Hoang’s own. “I unstitch the real and out tumbles magic.” I closed the book with the sense that I’d read something much longer, much larger, than this slim, unassuming volume.
Like The Argonauts (as unclassifiable, and as finely wrought), A Bestiary seems to float in space, alone with itself, rather than finding a secure pigeonhole in the reader’s mental catalogue. I don’t mean there’s no reference to other work – indeed, the book is rife with allusions to fairy tales, contemporary culture, and commanding voices from prior centuries (Blake, Montaigne, Cicero). And there’s something of Lydia Davis in Hoang’s deft employment of fragmentation, though she feels more giving, less stark, than Davis. But A Bestiary uses almost nothing from the standard personal essay playbook, nor can Hoang be slotted in next to it’s-a-hard-knock-life memoirists such as Mary Karr. She builds on David Markson, quotes David Foster Wallace, and occasionally recalls David Shields, yet she is not clearly walking the path of any of these men. She is speaking her own language, one that’s prickly and splendid and hard to box into a single genre. Hoang creates her own zoo for words and memories, and all the reader can do is walk around in awe.
Katharine Coldiron lives in California and blogs at The Fictator.