No child in our family stays a child their mother can love.
From “Lipstick Elegy”
Paul Tran’s long-awaited debut collection, All the Flowers Kneeling, is a fierce reminder that Tran is one of the most talented and visceral poets writing in America today. They deftly center balance throughout the collection, never lingering in grief or grace, instead choosing to occupy the liminal space between. The poems take a wide range of forms, and many are in direct conversation with one another, resisting finality in favor of fluidity and change.
The interplay between “Incident Report” and “Progress Report” exudes Tran’s decision to organize the collection toward a space of growth and agency. “Incident Report,” the second poem in the collection, explores the impact of naming and how naming can be used to exert power over individuals. Tran begins the poem with the powerful juxtaposition, “The form said Name of victim./The form named me.” Throughout the poem, Tran considers how the incident report employs specific language to label and assert authority over the naming of both the body and trauma. “Progress Report” follows a similar structure, but incorporates vital shifts in language. For instance, the latter includes the lines “The new form said Name of survivor./The new form renamed me,” which illustrates the evolution of language and how individuals can work to reclaim agency over their lived experiences.
Tran also includes a series of poems alluding to science and scientists, particularly those known for their work with energy and cosmology, as well as various allusions to philosophy. These poems exemplify the brilliance that fans of Tran have come to associate with their writing, as the author displays not just a wide range of knowledge but a knack for shifting familiar names and theories into fresh, insightful reflections on the contemporary moment. “Galileo,” for example, considers trauma through the lens of time, alluding to the astronomer and his legacy as the speaker laments their inability to dismantle time, to undo or unlive a trauma. “Copernicus” presents a shattering moment of realization, the speaker declaring, “Now I know what appears/as the motion of Heaven/is just the motion of Earth,” in a profoundly simple yet jarring loss of faith.
The book is framed by the poems “Orchard of Knowing” and “Orchard of Unknowing,” perhaps the most effective and intriguing example of Tran’s ability to extend meaning through the organization of their collection. “Orchard of Knowing” ends with the speaker lamenting, “…I didn’t mean the blade in your hand./I meant the blade in your mind.” At the outset of the collection, this image resonates, but the “you” referred to throughout the poem gives the sense that the speaker is engaging the reader. “Orchard of Unknowing,” even through its title, adds a dimension to this by implying that the “you” was, in fact, the speaker themselves. “Orchard of Unknowing,” in contrast, utilizes the first person and gives the reader a direct window into what Tran has learned, namely that “things have happened. Are happening. Are about to.”
All the Flowers Kneeling is a complex and unique collection, so deliberately and carefully arranged that readers will forget it is a debut.