Burlee Vang’s prose and poetry have appeared in Ploughshares, North American Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, and the Massachusetts Review, among other literary journals.
“That’s what the reader is in for, in this undertow of a book. Burlee Vang is part of everything and everybody he writes about, from growling stomachs to the tiger’s roar. This is a persuasive debut.”
I should tell you, I know Burlee Vang. However, it's been a long time since we've spoken or even been within a glance. So I should say, I knew Burlee Vang, because of that slight technicality and because it feels okay to talk about him in the past — that's how we talk about people who are important.
I should also tell you that I'm not writing this recommendation because I knew him. Actually, here I write about a Burlee Vang that I didn't even know — Burlee Vang the poet. I never met this part of him. For half a year, we were in the same fiction workshop. I caught glimpses of his poetry in his prose, but it wasn't until this, The Dead I Know: Incantation for Rebirth, that I held poems of his.
The Burlee Vang that I did know and I didn't talk much. I didn't know him the way most people can say of their friends. Didn't know where he lived. Didn't have his phone number. Didn't know his wife. Didn't know the things that upset him (I never even saw him upset). But I did know his favorite writers and that we liked the same ones — their pains and their ability to love despite it, perhaps because of it — and that was enough to begin a friendship, the kind that had small and few conversations, like poems actually, that briefly say a lot.
He was a serious writer, more than anyone I knew, so after our short conversations I imagined him running to the house I didn't know, and writing with the things I did know — a spiral notebook that he folded like a newspaper under an arm, and a Bic. Still, I wondered if I had been right. Had he gone into a room to write all day? Had he committed every minute of his day to writing? Was he having the same problems that I was experiencing — loneliness, frustration? Those were things I always wondered, and still do, so I read this book of poems like answers. As if this Burlee, the poet, was telling me about the other.
In his poem, “Eating Without the Poet,” I found a possible answer to my previous questions. The wife of a poet calls her husband to dinner, pleading with him to join his family. “Again, husband: how many hours have you/ spent with your poems? Come sit beside us now./ Look, the sun is bleeding outside our kitchen. . . .” The husband responds, “Still too much beauty to speak of . . .” And she replies, “Do you know that letting go is a kind of beauty?”
But I still don't know. Was he the poet missing from the table? Was he searching for peace through his writing? Did he refuse to eat in an unsettled state? Why did he write? In his ars poetica, I hear him say, “Maybe because I'm dying,” and “Perhaps I desire too much/ the things I'll never have/ Or the things I've lost.”
I had these questions for Burlee because the prose of his that I read during our workshop gave me the feeling that we had the same blues — diaspora blues. Mine, the Mexican-American blues. His, the Hmong-American blues. Now I know that I probably didn't see much of him because he was putting this book together — writing his blues into songs. In these poems, Burlee Vang welcomes us into a pain he has kept honest while crafting for us to enter and walk away with truth and history without suffering its consequences (the way the people in his poems have). We will not know what it feels like to be a Hmong man living in hiding, shot when searching for food, and then begging to be carried by the living things in the river where he lays half-dead. We won't know what it's like for a Hmong woman and her son to leave a war-torn country, only to enter a new kind of battle and struggle in the U.S. We won't know what it is like to be a poet writing about an ongoing war while his brother dies in that war. But we do exit hurting differently — a pain that comes with understanding a truth, a secret, kept away from us as is the story of the Hmong.
The last time I saw Burlee was in our English department's hallway. We knew it would likely be the last time we saw each other, so we stopped to exchange our final words. I can't tell you what we said to each other. I've tried to remember but can only recall some words. I can tell you that after reading this book, I now put lines of his poems into the missing dialogue of that memory. When I enter that last conversation in my mind, I tell him of my sadness, how I feel like I die as I see my aging parents fade with their work, and he says, “spread your shadow as if in flight.” When I tell him about my writing and the sacrifices I'm making make for it, he understands, and says, “I've told the dead to let me sleep—/ they can talk forever.”
This is a book for everyone searching for answers. The answers are here.