In-Depth Look: Hieu Minh Nguyen – “The Translation of Grief”

In-Depth Look: Hieu Minh Nguyen – “The Translation of Grief”

Appreciating poetry is often about patience: sitting with a poem, meditating on it, and re-reading it multiple times. With spoken word, we don’t always get a chance to do that. This series is about taking that chance, and diving a little deeper into some of the new poems going up on Button.

“I throw a fistful of sand in the air and pretend to weep.”


Write-up by Kyle “Guante” Tran Myhre

Get Guante’s Book Here

I started writing down lines from this poem that could be used as a jumping-off point to begin to explore its central idea, but I ended up writing down just about the entire poem. And maybe that’s the lesson for aspiring poets– know what work the poem is trying to do, and make sure every line– every word– contributes in a meaningful way to that work.

A room has four walls (if that); it doesn’t need five or six or seven. That can take a lifetime to figure out, if it can be “figured out” at all, but this poem from Hieu Minh Nguyen is a brilliant example of what that kind of efficiency can look like. Note how every line is a complete thought, but how every thought also functions as a transition to the next thought. Take a closer look at the third quarter (or so) of the poem:

I anticipate this grief by exhausting it with music. I open the casket; I make her dance in the center. It is the habit of the artist to see a hole and fill it with imagination. It is the habit of the living to see everyone you love and imagine them dead. I can lick the dirt off of all of your faces. I can sing any dirge, in any key, but the translation of grief will always be flat. There will always be the contrasting light between what is expected, and what would change your bones.

The sound, the light, the taste, the movement in these lines– the sensory/concrete language is so full without being overwhelming. Each one of those lines could work on their own, as a shareable Instagram quote, or as a tattoo. But together, they flow elegantly into one another, a series of images building momentum and intensity, leading up to the poem’s final image of the single black strand of hair.

That’s all shop talk, poetry stuff. But this poem also pushes boundaries with regards to substance, exploring something profound, unsettling, and important about grief, about mortality, and about translation– both in terms of the “translating her life into English” line, and the deeper process of how we translate other people’s lives/deaths into our own grief– selfishly, imperfectly, inescapably.

Find more from Hieu Minh Nguyen (including info on his NEW book) here!


While you’re here, head over to the Button store to check out our books and merch, including books by Neil Hilborn, Olivia Gatwood, Hanif Abdurraqib, Donte Collins, Sabrina Benaim, Melissa Lozada-Oliva, William Evans, Guante, Rachel Wiley, & our newest release from Neil Hilborn!

Surprise! We got a free e-book for you check it out