There is one poem Joshua Nguyen was unable to include in his debut poetry collection, despite his best efforts: an extended cento—a form he invented—consisting of found text alternated with original lines. The poem consists partially of thirteen Mitski song titles; according to an anecdote he shares regularly at readings, the rights to use the songs turned out to be too expensive. That barrier didn’t stop Nguyen, though, from placing singer-songwriter Mitski at the beating heart of Come Clean in ways both obvious and subtle, including a careful approach to form, persona, vulnerability, humor, and experimentation as well as Nguyen’s overall approach to genre—particularly that of confessional poetry.
Music fan communities on Twitter, Tumblr, and TikTok frequently refer to Mitski’s oeuvre as “sad girl music”—a genre label often imposed upon female indie artists like Phoebe Bridgers, Sidney Gish, Snail Mail, Japanese Breakfast, and even Taylor Swift that implies a dismissive attitude towards women’s art and experiences. In the case of Mitski and of Japanese Breakfast’s Michelle Zauner, this attitude is perhaps intersectionally dismissive of gender and race (both are Asian American).
It’s easy, then, to draw a connection between sad girl music and confessional poetry, an often ridiculed and disrespected genre associated with women poets like Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, and Sharon Olds. Confessional poets of other genders have arisen—Robert Lowell, Ocean Vuong—but the stereotype remains, and over time has perhaps spread to encompass ungenerous readings of work by marginalized writers of all identities, a catch-all for work that engages with personal experience (as if any poem, on some level, doesn’t).
Nguyen turns this casting on its head by engaging with gendered tropes from the get-go. To “come clean” is an act of confession, a reveal, a physical act of cleaning (bolstered by Polaroid photographs of the poet cleaning his own apartment placed at the beginning of each section). The sexual pun of the word “come” is complicated by stereotypes of Asian American masculinity as well as the undercurrent of sexual trauma running through the collection. The “sad boy poem,” as a variant of confessional poetry heavily influenced by “sad girl music,” thus allows Nguyen freedom to play with and diverge from gendered and racialized expectations. Nguyen’s obsession with cleanliness and domesticity upends traditional gender roles, queering and blurring the lines of literal gender identity by merging the book’s speaker(s) with not just Mitski, but also renowned home-organizer Marie Kondo. He both becomes these women and calls out to them as patron saints, mostly through titles such as “Save Me, Marie Kondo” and “Marie Kondo Is My Hero.”
In “Marie Kondo Is My Hero: A Lesson on Folding Undergarments,” for instance, the speaker enacts Kondo’s highly organized folding system through the second-person perspective of his father, later interrupting the poem’s present-tense action with a plea from the real present of the poem’s composition, thus merging three people (speaker, father, Kondo):
I wish I could tell you
to polaroid this moment
before he tears up
and yells at you that
he’s old enough to
dress & undress
Further pop culture references abound in Come Clean. The aptly named “Exhaustion [But Every Time Leela Rose Kisses a Random Asian Man In the Street, a New Stanza Begins & the Amount of Words Between the Boxes Increase By One]” references a 2017 viral video in which a white woman films herself kissing Asian men on the streets of Tokyo in a misguided attempt to prove that Asian men have sex appeal. Nguyen’s poem addresses the lack of consent inherent in this project, its centering of Western pop culture, and Rose’s audacity in assuming she could personally solve such a problem:
you should ask every fucking time [ ] every person who looks like me [ ] does not need your expert validation [ ] every person who looks like me [ ] isn’t who we see on tv [ ] instead, we see people like you [ ] in front of people like me [ ]
Nguyen does something difficult in translating screen and sound to the page, something more and more writers attempt as digital and physical spaces amalgamate increasingly. That kind of translation is not his primary project, but it provides a sense of context and energy. Here, for instance, the brackets (a symbol used elsewhere in the collection to mark breaks inside poems and in the book’s sections, or as a harsher, more angular, loud-whispering alternative to parentheses) both take up space and enable redaction—privacy where it has been refused.
Other multimedia experiments here include the poem “Google Calendar for My Imposter Syndrome,” which is exactly what it sounds like: a poem in the form of a Google Calendar, listing items such as “Touch Yourself Gently,” “Shower (again),” and “Go To The Local Bar (Downplay Everything).”
From Come Clean by Joshua Nguyen. Reprinted by permission of the University of Wisconsin Press. © 2021 by the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System. All rights reserved.
The poem “Marie Kondo Is My Hero: On Organizing Christmas” takes an approach that invokes glitch, though it’s not explicitly digital—words pop in and out of grids in various aesthetic, programmatic combinations, eventually forming full sentences: “a / pear tree” becomes “my true love / a / pear tree / fantastic” becomes “my true love gifted me a brand-new relationship status under the brown pear tree / fantastic wrapping nevertheless.”
In Mitski’s infamous 2015 NPR Tiny Desk Concert, she seems uninterested in camera and crowd, alone on the soundstage, wailing into her guitar pickups—as she wrote later in a tweet, “looking like a big pulsing void and radiating pain.” Likewise, in the song “Class of 2013,” Mitski cries out plaintive questions to her mother, her beautiful voice loud and cracking. One is reminded of that famous Brian Eno quote: “The blues singer with the cracked voice is the sound of an emotional cry too powerful for the throat that releases it. The excitement of grainy film, of bleached-out black and white, is the excitement of witnessing events too momentous for the medium assigned to record them.”
Nguyen’s poems, too, often exceed the page that contains them. Consider “Save Me, Marie Kondo,” the book’s introductory poem, which asks the reader to turn the book physically sideways in order to read it, or “Marie Kondo Is My Hero: A Lesson on Clothing,” in which the words fracture across the page, rearrange and repeat themselves, and—toward the end of the poem—start to lighten and disappear.
The book presents itself as an object constantly on the verge of dissolving and disappearing right from one’s hands, an anxiety that further invokes the physical glitch of these poems on the page and also bears more than a passing resemblance to the sense of instability that comes from the ever-increasing merge of the digital with daily human behavior.
Nguyen’s poems jump between forms within and among themselves. Just as Mitski slides between genres—from her early operatics to the riot grrrl-adjacent to more recent ventures into eighties-tinged dance pop—Nguyen hops between forms, from the titular ghazal to the aforementioned extended cento to various examples of the American Lục Bát (a form adapted by Nguyen from a traditional Vietnamese metric form) to “An Argument About Being Needy While Underneath Binary Stars,” a go at the duplex, a form invented by Jericho Brown. In the last the speaker navigates growing resentment in a romantic relationship:
I hoped you would’ve read the space
between my breath as a cry for more attention.
You lose air when I cry for more attention,
having to gravitate toward spectroscopic closeness.
The notoriously private Mitski uses persona to disguise herself in plain sight. Nguyen similarly balances a speaker whose details waver in faithfulness to his personal experience. Referring in the title poem to an earlier poem (“Wisconsin Has a Place In My Heart & I Just Want It to Let Go”) that claims that an unnamed (but implicitly sexual) traumatic event took place in Wisconsin, Nguyen’s speaker recants, still not willing or able to speak the full truth:
I lied, I said Wisconsin, but it was a much colder place, let’s say Washington.
Truth be told, it was next to a river, that led to a dam, that led to a wash.
I said I blame my cousin, but in fact,
I blame myself.
Various other personas speak as well, including many members of the speaker’s family—“March 4th,” “My Brother Explains Driving,” “My Father Explains Employment,” “My Mother Explains Universal Healthcare”—as well as his cat (“My Cat Doesn’t Grasp Object Permanence”) and a hand towel (“Self-Portrait as the Hand Towel Which Hangs Above the Toilet”). Unlike the mostly fictional narrator of Mitski’s album Be the Cowboy, Nguyen’s personas circle around the central figure of the speaker, providing guidance, service, companionship, memories. Rather than using persona as a way to get away from himself, Nguyen often uses persona to get closer—or at least to appear to do so.
In a Vulture profile of Mitski prior to the release of her album Laurel Hell in early 2022, E. Alex Jung writes that “a Mitski song lasts about as long as it takes to poach an egg. They are small and will knock you out, like pearls slipped inside the left ventricle of your heart. She has suggested that the brevity of her songwriting comes from a pressure to make herself known upon entrance; an awareness that she only has a short time to make an impression.”
Again, the connection to poetry is obvious. Nguyen’s poems take brevity seriously in much the same way: they grab attention with long titles (almost short poems unto themselves condensed into single sentences), visibly experimental forms, or punchy first lines. The ever-present affability and vulnerability that might draw a reader in, though, eventually melt away to reveal a carefully constructed world, the artifice of which the speaker is also desperate to acknowledge. As the speaker’s mother insists in “March 4th”: “My son must be presentable to the world.”
Nguyen’s work deflects and refracts like frosted glass in sunlight. It sometimes feigns an intimacy with the reader that it later chooses to reel back in. It expects familiarity with the concepts and people it confronts, or at least doesn’t mind if readers lack it. Like an obsession with cleanliness, order, or perfection resulting from trauma or mental illness, Come Clean scrubs to obscure rather than to reveal.
Confession in both Nguyen’s and Mitski’s work depends upon an appearance of improvisation and vulnerability that is actually highly cultivated—the cornerstone, I would argue, of most if not all poetry, and a craft with which one becomes well acquainted when performing, whether it’s music or spoken word (which Nguyen did for years). These poems manage to keep a lot locked up while simultaneously giving a lot away, a difficult balance to strike. Persona becomes confession; confession becomes performance.
But confession is never just telling something. It’s observing what happens when you tell it. In Come Clean, Nguyen demonstrates keen skills of observation—observational humor, defamiliarization, self-consciousness, and self-awareness. He watches the reader watching him; he watches himself, then watches himself watching himself. Perhaps, as expected, Mitski explains the impulse best in her song “A Burning Hill”: “And I am the fire and I am the forest / and I am a witness watching it / I stand in a valley watching it / and you are not there at all.” The sadness that can come with that loneliness, when performed and confessed, wields its own kind of power.
Come Clean by Joshua Nguyen. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2021. 104 pp. $16.95.