Cluster by Souvankham Thammavongsa (McClelland & Stewart, March 2019)  Reviewed by Aaron Peck

by Souvankham Thammavongsa
(McClelland & Stewart, March 2019)

Reviewed by Aaron Peck

Her poems are shards that pierce us. A cluster is a collection of things, often of fruits or flowers. It can describe the proximity of celestial bodies, such as a star or galaxy cluster, or gatherings of eggs or cells. It is also a kind of bomb, which looks something like a handball. Upon detonation, a cluster bomb sprays metal pellets over a wide blast range. Between 1964 and 1973, the United States dropped more than two million tons of them over Laos; cluster bombs have killed or maimed around 50,000 people in southeast Asia during a war that Richard Nixon never acknowledged. A cluster is also an excruciating kind of headache. Souvankham Thammavongsa’s poetics rest on these kinds of polyvalences. In her work, things that appear simple require close attention. When we give it to them, they have an emotional blast-range.

Cluster builds on Thammavongsa’s previous three collections—Small Arguments (2003), Found (2007), and the Trillium Award-winning Light (2013)—expanding on linked themes to deliver what is her best collection to date. It is the culmination of a quartet of books that, using deceptively direct language, champions small things. The book gathers a number of “clusters” of different kinds of poems: there is a series about motherhood and pregnancy, some in the form of brokerage reports, others of still life; poems about the lives of people barely getting by in menial jobs; descriptions of photographs. None are separated into different sections; they’re all mixed together so that as we read the book, one kind of poem appears, then another, and so on. The difference, to use Gertrude Stein’s phrase, is spreading.

In the midst of this variety, I was particularly drawn to Thammavongsa’s descriptions of photographs. They are, of course, examples of ekphrasis, a poem describing a work of art or some other kind of visual object, but Thammavongsa uses the genre to do something specific: to reclaim control. The pictures are, in a sense, not for us. Most are personal snapshots. We have no way of seeing the images other than through the descriptions provided; we must imagine the rest. In many cases, even the subject is missing. In a poem addressed to a childhood friend, entitled “Gayatri,” Thammavongsa writes:

I have a picture of us, when we are seven

but we aren’t in it. At the time it was taken

we thought we were

These poems give a voice to absent figures: descriptions of a family; the playful moments of childhood in spite of unhappiness; ended relationships. Hers is a poetics of reclamation. Each poem becomes a site where the speaker commands independence through an act of reconstructing images, objects, and memories. That is their autonomy. We only have what the poet tells us. For instance, in “There Are No Photographs of Me,” she maintains control of how we see them:

In all the photographs

you took


not there

I managed

to get out


the flash

In another, entitled “Minute Maid Poster,” the poem imbues a banal poster with a private resonance:

We used to have this poster on the wall. It was

an advertisement for Minute Maid. A row of

orange groves. It went on top of billboards

and was sealed inside the glass of bus shelters.

The poster gave my parents a different view

than the one we had from our window. We

had only snow and the exhaust pipe from a car

parked just outside. It never tore.

Thammavongsa was born stateless in a Lao refugee camp in Thailand. After nearly a year there, the family was granted refugee status in Canada. She then grew up in Toronto, studied philosophy, and for years worked in stock market analysis and tax preparation, while writing and publishing four collections of poetry. These details seem important to mention because, in all four books, biographical details have certain significances—they are often, if only elliptically, part of the poems, not merely their context.

Over the past sixteen years, Thammavongsa has created a signature style through which she explores a linked set of concerns. The first, Small Arguments, appears to be a rather meditative book of still life, mostly of fruits and insects. Poems in this collection are all written in a similar way, with the words cascading and scattering across the page, in free verse, instead of forming traditional-looking stanzas. Yet underneath their simplicity, they have a violence that unsettles:

A Grapefruit


this is what happens

to a body

How, sliced, its insides

will blare red.

Thammavongsa takes what might be the subject of beauty and reminds us what its cost really is: they are maimed things, dead things. The poems maintain a simple diction because Thammavongsa worked with a vocabulary that she knew her parents, whose English remains imperfect, would be able to read and understand. From the first poem of Small Arguments, “Materials,” Thammavongsa announces her theme:

Growing up, I

did not have books

The only reading material

there was

were old newspapers laid out

on the floor

to dry

our winter boots [. . .]

When I learned to read,

the winter boots

lay dripping

in the hallway [. . .]

because I knew this


would be my way in.

If Small Arguments announces the author’s subject, Found narrows the scope of the project to a single object: an attempt to reconstruct, through poems, a calendar notebook of her father’s from the year the family was in a refugee camp. The poet discovered the notebook after her father had thrown it out. The book becomes an affirmation of personal identity as well as a meditation on found aesthetics. Each poem in the collection either describes an aspect of the notebook, or attempts to replicate it somehow. Found endeavors to reclaim the poet’s birth, which occurred in a refugee camp, what philosopher Giorgio Agamben has called “a state of exception,” and thus had no papers to document it. While certain poems could stand alone as autonomous works, the book achieves its power through their presentation as a whole. The aesthetic sophistication of Found is remarkable, as each poem shifts the way it represents—from description, to imitation, to pigeons killed by hand. Its final eighteen pages describe the marks, scratches, and notes made on each month of the calendar; most poems are simply the date and a handwritten strike-through.

Light dilates her two main concerns—one a kind of reclamation of identity, the other giving voice to voiceless things—increasing also the sorts of poems Thammavongsa writes.¹ Examples of still life from Small Arguments, in their characteristic cascading form, return, but they are accompanied by poems presented in stanza form of a childhood endured amid difficult circumstances, as well as a variety of others that explore light explicitly. The poems about light act as a unifying device. In them, light is not the metaphor that we associate it with in Western philosophy; rather, it is both a life-giving force and a destructive one. In Light, for example, there are three different poems—“Ljós,” “Fie,” and “Litch”—that describe the titular word in Icelandic, Laotian, and Dutch, exploring the ways in which each word has different connotations and etymologies, how even the visual aspect of each word alters its meaning. “I thought light always had something to do with the eye,” Thammavongsa writes, “a thing you see when it’s open / I never thought it could be something you could reach out for, pluck out of its place in the universe and its order.”

While Light saw Thammavongsa’s range develop both in terms of form and theme, Cluster expands it even further. Through the poems about brokerage reports, and those about menial jobs, Thammavongsa looks at the economics of precarity, the ways in which refugees continually struggle to improve their circumstances in new places. In a fragmentary way, these poems attempt to tell the stories of people whose voices are rarely heard.

A fragment isn’t the whole of a thing

But it doesn’t need to be

It’s enough to be an open.

Those previous lines come from a poem at the center of Cluster entitled “O,” which meditates on the letter in a variety of different ways. It’s not the first time Thammavongsa has written poems about letters, words, or handwriting. In Found, a number describe the shape of Laotian letters in her father’s script, with close attention to the visual aspect of letters:

Each letter


around itself


a small dark



inner ear


and landlocked.

Letters become objects, like any other thing in an inventory. In Cluster, the first lines of “O” describe its shape when handwritten: “When this letter is written out by hand / Where it begins and ends lands in the same place.” The poem moves on from these metaphysical remarks on handwriting to the letter’s similarity to zero, to finances, to tennis balls and Wimbleton, and then to bombs:

In Laos, a child wanted to play with a ball

He found one buried in the ground

It did not bounce

It asks us, through remarkable shifts of image and association, how we confront unacknowledged suffering.

It can happen with so little

It can take a long time to arrive

Years even if ever

It’s possible meaning doesn’t mean anything

And that is its meaning

Meaning doesn’t give you clarity.

Thammavongsa’s poems attempt to voice what has been pushed aside, left unheard, injured, what hasn’t been assigned meaning.

I want to briefly return to how this plays out in her poems about photographs. In “My Mother Gave Me,” the speaker describes a photo album that includes a series of images of her childhood, happy ones. But the poem takes an unexpected turn. She notices in one of the pictures a “boy sitting on a park bench watching us.” It’s her brother.

I always thought

he was the favourite one, the one

they really wanted. I did not think

of what I might have looked like to him.

It then continues to describe the way that all of the things that the speaker had—clothes, a trainer bicycle—were handed down to him. The pictures in the photo album, which are purported to be about the speaker, are transformed into a meditation on the absent figure of the brother, who appears in margins. It’s signature of Thammavongsa’s poems to reverse the perspective of what we assume we’re looking at.

The poet Sharon Thesen has a line that has been stuck in my head since reading it nearly twenty years ago: “To be bold in my own way.” It’s a line with the force of a manifesto for so much of what I value, qualities that I find in Thammavongsa’s poetry. There is in it strength and fierceness. It is the opposite of passive. It does not move in expected ways, resting instead on subtle polyvalences, inverting what is expected. Her poems reveal power and force: their ability to pierce, shard, shatter, and prick.

¹ As a side-note: in 2006, I had the pleasure of editing Residual, Thammavongsa’s chapbook for Greenboathouse Books, which collected a selection of poems that later appeared in Light.

Aaron Peck’s writing has recently appeared in frieze, the New York Review Daily, The White Review, and The Happy Reader. He lives in Paris.

Banner image: “Cluster amaryllis,” by Yasunari Nakamura. Reproduced under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license.