within the margin.
Apogee Press, 2004. 174 pp. $16.95.
Reviewed by Alvis Minor
"Within the margins," Truong Tran tells us in within the margin,
his fourth book, "the writer has no shame." As in his previous books,
Tran investigates how poetry functions as a medium for the exploration of
identity. He dares us to question what we have read ("a note is written fact or fiction
// you the
reader you know who you are // specifically you are asked
// to decide").
While such a distrust of the written word is nothing new for Tran (it has
very poignant consequences near the end of dust and conscience), his
latest offering a far more tangible
understanding of textuality.
For Tran, the margin is a multifaceted metaphor, but all of its meanings
signify oppression. It is a space to which identities are relegated and a
visible representation of the "rules" by which writers are bound. Tran
resists the margin by ignoring it: most of the pages that constitute this
book-length poem contain a single enjambed line, forcing readers to imagine
that the line neither begins at the left margin nor breaks at the right ("if only it were as simple as that a line on the page in a book as in life
in choosing a position // to the left or right identity is formed
this myth of the outsider looking in the // question being is this silence
self imposed"). In theory, the strategy
is brilliant. The poem very quickly begins to deconstruct its problematic
comparison between the marginalization of cultures and the white space
surrounding poems. And Tran eventually acknowledges that the margins
of the page are inescapable, because we cannot deny the physical limitations
of the text. But it is the poem's conclusion that offers the most
profound insight ("dear reader // if you must know // within the margin //
there is no margin").
While the poem tries to erase the margin, readers see that a line begins on
one side of the page and ends on the other. Likewise, the marginalization
of a culture takes place outside of that culture; in other words, such a
positioning is not innate, but imposed.
One has to admire how tightly Tran connects form and content, but the
page-to-page enjambment is also the book's most striking flaw. The fact
that Tran wants his readers to feel somewhat uncomfortable with the
technique is no consolation as we must constantly interrupt our reading to
turn the page. What begins as an intriguing strategy that makes us
aware of the physical nature of the text soon becomes an exercise in tedium.
Add to this Tranís attempts to escape the limitations of punctuation and
syntax, and the results often border on unreadable ("history in the i a voice a cop he is directing traffic he holds
out his hand he waves it forward gesturing // as he speaks
his words i swear i will never forget hold up hon he says with
a wink // and a smile iíll get you over iíll get you home
because there is always room for such a word because he
loves me because i choose to").
Despite its shortcomings, within the margins contains many gems well
worth mining. Halfway through the poem, the speaker tells a story from his
childhood in which his friends falsely accuse him of stealing money from one
of their mothers. He views the accusation as a sign of his marginalization
within the group. But when he admits to stealing money from his own mother
in order to buy baseball cards, he realizes that his inclusion and his
exclusion originate from similar actions. Though Tran offers a view of
textuality that is rich and absorbing, his greatest triumphs come in the
moments when we can see past the surface of the poem to the emotions that
Alvis Minor attends
the graduate program at the University of Southern California.