REVIEW: YELLOW RAIN – MAI DER VANG (GRAYWOLF PRESS)

I have been gardening myself into this remembrance.

From “Guide for the Channeling” Tweet

Mai Der Vang’s Yellow Rain immediately signals itself as a book which defies genre. Adjacent to the poems are declassified documents and prosaic vignettes that contextualize Vang’s call to follow the rain. The collection is separated into five sections, each one offering more clarity about the historical reality of Hmong displacement and the lives lost to chemical warfare, the unwillingness of the United States to acknowledge the use of chemical weapons, and the generational trauma resulting from forced displacement, massacre and global denial. 

 

Yellow Rain, Vang explains in the first vignette, refers to dust like particles that Hmong refugees described as falling from the sky. Those who encountered yellow rain often died quickly, resulting in the calculated genocide of Hmong people as they fled Laos in the 1970s. “I am the daughter of Hmong refugees: mother and father were among the fled, which makes me among the fled. Second child and firstborn in a new land, daughter who keeps looking back at the sky,” Vang writes at the end of the first vignette. These lines capture the underlying force which propels the collection forward.

 

One of the things that makes Yellow Rain so intriguing is Vang’s fusion of erasure and found poetry forms to shed light on declassified documents about yellow rain. The documents display continual efforts to deny the use of chemical weapons against Hmong refugees, with American scientists going so far as to attribute the falling particles to bee feces despite overwhelming evidence that contradicted these claims. In effect, Vang co-opts a popular poetic form to critique the historical erasure of trauma experienced by Hmong people as they fled the communist regimes of Vietnam and Laos.

 

Juxtaposed with these fragments are poems that display remarkable skill as they fill in the gaps left by decades of denial from American agencies. Vang completes the narrative through these poems, giving space to a story that scientists and officials continue to dismiss. “The Culpable” opens with a direct address to these scientists:

 

When all else fails, you’ll indict the bees.

 

When all else rushes at your awareness

in the stage of sudden beasts,

 

you’ll second guess

if it had been the bees.

 

The poems function as direct commentary about the massacre of Hmong refugees and Western attempts to cover it up. Speakers often invoke those Vang holds accountable, first for the deaths themselves and then for the attempts to erase the experience from history. They offer Vang an opportunity to respond on behalf of all those who provided blood, submitted to questioning and trusted the United States government to legitimize their pain.

 

Ultimately, Yellow Rain resists a traditional review just as it resists genre and form. Mai Der Vang masters contemporary poetic structures, grounds her verse in vivid and haunting imagery, and carries a central narrative throughout the collection. But Vang also manipulates nontraditional forms, such as the questionnaires given to Hmong refugees, to comment on the egregiously dehumanizing processes that scientists subjected Hmong people to in their investigation of yellow rain. She uses typography and arrangement to build out visual poems that combine first-hand accounts with contemporary responses to stories about yellow rain. 


Many of the most interesting pieces are not easily excerpted because of this. Yellow Rain is not easily quotable, but that, too, is a strength. Vang has created a book which demands to be read in its entirety, one that argues for a fuller and more complete acknowledgement of Hmong history. This collection will appeal to a broad spectrum of readers, offering as much to pique the historian’s interest as it does to excite the poetry lover. For educators, it will prove one of the most useful and informative texts in the classroom, one that is perfectly at home in every unit of the syllabus. Yellow Rain is, quite simply, one of the most engaging and important books of the year.

RONNIE K. STEPHENS

RONNIE K. STEPHENS

Ronnie K. Stephens is a proud father of six and college English instructor. He is the author of two poetry collections and one young adult novel. His second collection, They Rewrote Themselves Legendary, won Best in Show at the New England Book Show. Stephens is also a contributing writer for Interrogating Justice, a social justice think tank. Currently, he is pursuing a PhD in English with an emphasis in diversifying the literary canon for the 21st century classroom.

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