Franz Wright
Jenn Morea
Ted Pelton
Susan M. Schultz
Amanda Nadelberg
Standard Schaefer
Matthew Cooperman
Ed Taylor
Coralie Reed
Gretchen Mattox
Mark Rudman
Ales Debeljak
Simon Perchik
Bendall on Wagner
Schroeder on Mullen
Thompson on Gibson
Minor on Tran
Rippey on Hannah

Truong Tran, 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 dispelling 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 compel it.

Alvis Minor attends the graduate program at the University of Southern California.



(c) 2005 Slope. Slope is ISSN # 1536-0164.