W. Scott Howard
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Surrendering the Margin: Tran’s Poetics of Transposition[1]


a six-year-old boy’s discovery of self through language a gift stolen from his mother and family his sexuality too a secret to reveal in the here now as the nondescript man chooses to tell his story because he loves him because he is because he ignites by saying flame[2]

Truong Tran’s writing explores the struggle for identity and meaning within and against a context of hyphenated (complementary and contradicting) relationships among aesthetic, cultural, ethnic, familial, personal, sexual, and social forces.[3] Hence the appeal, for this poet, of the margin as a key trope: Tran’s deft articulation (in form and content) of the contingent synergy between what it means to be an insider and an outsider at any moment across the arc of one’s life. If his publications (up to this point) could be characterized with a generalization, perhaps that notion gets close to the crux of Tran’s poetics from The Book of Perceptions (Kearney Street Workshop, 1999), to Placing the Accents (Apogee, 1999), to Dust and Conscience (Apogee, 2002), to Going Home, Coming Home (Children’s Book Press, 2003).

As the manifold denotations and connotations for the word “margin” suggest, such a trope can be wonderfully generative. Yet I would imagine that Tran has also encountered the resistance (to craft and community) that such a multi-faceted perspective and poetics may engender (in language, as in life). At what point does the margin become window, or center, or wall, or circumference? Tran’s un-paginated book,[4] Within the Margin (Apogee, 2004), invokes all the linguistic and worldly richness of the margin as a pivotal device and theme, and also attempts to get beyond that framework. Tran invites himself and his readers, in the final pages, to surrender that enabling and constraining trope: “surrendering all notions / of love and of language / . . . dear reader / if you must know / within the margin / there is no margin” (167-69). Surrendering the margin, however, proves to be no simple task: to give something up or over also means to submit oneself to a greater power, to relinquish control to the margin’s centrifugal/centripetal force(s). Tran engages a poetics of transposition—alteration, disturbance, re-sequencing, translation—that relentlessly (bluntly, lovingly, unsettlingly) shifts the ground beneath writer, text, reader, and world. What was hitherto marginal (mundane, secret) becomes central (extraordinary, transparent) then re/de-marginalized and re/de-centered yet once more within and against the work’s inside-outside-breathless-discursive-Moebius-recursive-serpentine-unblinking life-line that zips across the length of the book like a laser or an RSS feed with the news of poetry’s reporting of past-present-future-happening “in the here now” (30). Within the Margin marks a turning point in Tran’s writing. After surrendering the margin, this poet’s transformation, I believe, will become all the more capacious, resilient, and constrained.

from i to a boy who is he of the fantastic four then a student a writer or nondescript man who’s the lover of language and reader of you in the family where sister and brother or father and mother all the neighborhood boys turning to him the one emerging departing

From the volume’s haunting cover (by Noah David Smith) to the final page, Within the Margin plays seriously (whimsically too) with the theme of the margin; at least nine passages directly address self-reflexive matters, such as: secret words (1-2), the writer’s and reader’s mutual isolation (17-20), calculable incalculability (39-45), self and other(s) (61-6), the loss of innocence (100-01), memory as writing/revision (104-14), speaking the unspeakable (116-18), language and identity (142-49), and leaving the margin (167-69). Tran begins boldly (some may say recklessly)—“within the margin / there are the words / margin / because / dare i say fuck” (1-2)—as a way of harnessing the margin’s power to enclose and disclose hidden information from the past. That stance toward the margin’s usefulness prevails until the last two of those nine passages when Tran introduces the enigmatic presence of “the keeper”—a figure who seems to represent a future-looking fusion of several overlapping personae in the book: the six-year old boy (3), the nondescript man (12), the writer (17), the mother and son (51), and the father (83) among other merging figures (e.g., sister, brother, four neighborhood boys, etc.). Whereas all of the other personae in this work seem to dwell in the margin’s enabling conditions against/for their possibilities, the sage, liminal figure of the keeper resists that prevalent posture, “leans into life” (146), engendering a poetics of transposition and transformation beyond margins:

within the margin is the keeper a man humble hunched over he speaks in whispers he stands at the threshold he sees the world in shades of green to hear his words you witness his wonder quiet complex defiant words one leans forward and receives his meaning one leans forward and leans into life resilient the keeper stands where margins are no more / margins no more / one leans into life / is forever changed / from he / to i / to you / to her / within the margin / pronouns / are just / a way (143-48).

The singularity of this prophetic gesture and presence resonates through the volume’s final pages where Tran confronts the imminent/immanent prospect of surrendering the margin. However, equivocation destabilizes that probable impossibility:

i would do it again / surrendering all notions / of love and of language / its layers of meaning / its rhythms its rhymes / surrendering family / both the joy and the burden / it's just not worth it / most willingly / i surrender the word fuck / within the margin / dear reader / if you must know / within the margin / there is no margin (167-69).

Here, I must say, I take issue with Tran’s choice: the phrase “it’s just not worth it” passes judgment where the evaluation of the work’s concluding paradox should be left open for the reader to contemplate; further, this repudiation of the writer’s engagement with and disengagement from the text’s key trope seems capricious. Yet, at the same time, I want to praise the robust impulsiveness that animates this book’s uncouth, idiosyncratic, and uncompromising gestures that celebrate everything from the simple to the complex, the quotidian to the uncanny.

Within the Margin is a wild ride through a stream-of-consciousness flow of overlapping stories, personae, images, and meta-discursive reflections on the volume’s poetics of transposition as that vertiginous experience happens in the moment of each page’s re(turning): one hundred and seventy-one un-paginated pages (but whose counting?); neither punctuation nor capitalization; a single horizon line of narrative (like an RSS information feed); at least twenty-six personae (which often merge into one another); and at least that many overlapping stories. To make matters even more interesting (or frustrating, depending upon your patience) ten spare, loosely arranged stanzaic passages[5] and eight blank pages[6] interrupt that otherwise incessant torrent of language, underscoring the work’s pursuit on every level (character and plot development, formal presentation, inter-textual devices, imagery, temporality, etc.) of the ampersanding transformation of margin (outsider-ness) to center (insider-ness) and back again & again & etc. With this much crazy stuff happening between the covers, the book gives the reader a capacious horizon of possible directions. My reading here of Within the Margin will necessarily be provisional: for each perspective, there’s a cluster of alternative vectors. Some readers will not have enough patience; some will dismiss the writing as frivolous. I’ve read the text I don’t know how many times now, and I don’t want to put it down: “a voluptuary of the difficult real” (says Kathleen Fraser); “a ‘meteor storm’ of the heart and mind” (remarks Juan Hererra). As I read Within the Margin, I am reminded of companion small press publications, such as: Leslie Scalapino’s The Woman Who Could Read the Minds of Dogs (Sand Dollar, 1976) for the stream-of-consciousness; Tom Raworth’s Writing (The Figures, 1982) for the scope of visions and voices; and Lew Daly’s e. Dickinson on a sleepwalk with the alphabet prowling around her (Burning Deck, 1990) for the infinite, spare lyrical line.

doomed to fail dr doom buried among mint plants milk cartons missing children their faces blue figures and words scattered the way a camera lens cracked gathers images objects memory pieces from a distance collected on a shelf like a skyline a lover's body

Tran published two poems, “because” and “eight margins,” in Lodestar Quarterly (issue 9, spring 2004)[7] that illustrate a work-in-progress moment in the emergence of Within the Margin. In terms of formal presentation, both poems offer clusters of narrative crafted (and designed to be read) somewhat conventionally in a top-to-bottom, left-to-right fashion. Tran’s work, in that instance, reads much like a sequence poem, but with more narrative fullness, similar to his style in Dust and Conscience: closer perhaps to the line of the cubist prose poem, which “articulates abrupt juxtapositions of simultaneous perceptions and experiences,” rather than to the surrealist line that “limns rhapsodic (often nostalgic) lyricism.”[8] Each poem (in LQ) initiates one of the pivotal stories that becomes entangled with so many other stories in the convoluted form/content of Within the Margin: “because,” the tale of the six-year-old boy who discovers his homosexuality, grows-up, and finds the courage to use language (and live his life) on his own terms; “eight margins,” meditations on the theme of the margin that connect/disconnect the six-year-old boy to/from his mother—in particular, his discovery (through her) of language, gardening, and botany. (Many common themes circulate through and among Tran’s publications; attentive readers will note images and passages of text that the poet reconfigures slightly from one work to the next).

“Botany” (meaning, the border of a leaf) is the only italicized word in “eight margins” and Within the Margin (62), which points to another feature of Tran’s latest book that helps his reader find a map. Within and against the swirling micro-cosm/macro-cosm of Tran’s twenty-six (or more) personae and plots, nine meditations on the meanings of margin, ten (stanzaic) meta-discursive passages, and eight blank pages, Within the Margin also gives the reader a cluster of key words and phrases that act like hypertext links <splicing sub-text to text, outside to inside> and which appear and disappear at various moments throughout the volume’s multiple Moebius loop-de-loopings, such as: <margin>, <because>, <fuck>, <on this day>, <his story>, <in that moment>, <now>, <in the here now>, <that i am because i am>. Those words (among others) serve as inter-textual markers, giving the reader a few clues about how the book’s multifarious stories inter-animate one another. Then there are the words, like <botany>, that appear only once because they carry significant charges. Botany, as noted above, connects the boy-man-writer persona to the mother figure. <Burt Reynolds> signals the young boy’s discovery of homoeroticism “on the page and in the flesh” (28). And <Itzolin> (117) invokes the remarkable, tragic story of Itzolin Valdemar Garcia, a gifted artist-dancer-singer-writer, who studied with Tran in 2003 at the Kearny Street Workshop.[9] Those discrete elements together reinforce what some readers may surmise during many moments in not only Within the Margin, but in all of Tran’s works (so far): the degree of autobiographical content. Within the Margin is poetic fiction inflected by the social real—closer to panegyric than elegy—a personal song of praise for the common good after the work of mourning. The writing confidently rides on the cusp of the confessional mode, and the book’s experimental form and recursive multi-layered stories successfully estrange the familiar, granting the reader a pleasurable, oblique quest. Within the Margin risks authenticity, and succeeds beautifully, partially.

so many inconstant figures lover father sister brother voices cities childhood friends each and all remembered or forgotten or transfigured by the abiding presence of mother and man child in their struggle for story constrained and enabled by their shame their silence

The volume’s eight blank pages engender gaps and silences among six narrative sections that may each be summarized in terms of character and plot relationships that tend to fold/unfold like reverse epiphanies (a motif reminiscent of the prose poem). Section one (1-37) concerns primarily the experience of the six-year-old boy who discovers his identity, matures, and reaches a turning-point: while waiting for a traffic light to change, the man chooses to declare his love “because he loves me because i choose to because life and death and everything in / between because as a word for the reason that i am because i am because i am because” (36-37). The next part (39-101) addresses several stories about the son (as boy, as man, as writer), his family and friends: the boy’s habitual theft of money (from his mother) to buy baseball cards; the mother’s constant presence as giver/taker of life and language; the father’s death and the man’s life in transition from NYC to SF (which together mark the volume’s center); some of the writer’s cherished things, such as a special gift (given to his brother) of “a five dollar bill / stuffed inside two halves of a walnut” (89-90), and his favorite meal, “brown rice and seaweed there’s nothing to describe it is what it is” (91). Section three (104-14) intimates various paths for margin’s meaning: as an index of choice, direction, and growth; as a mechanism for concealment and also scattering; as a threshold for valediction; and as a fulcrum for the generative work of mourning: “having witnessed / the willow’s weeping / he writes the eulogy / yet again / eleven stories / within the margin / within a lifetime / each story rewritten / eleven times” (109-10). The following part (116-39) weaves together several threads: Itzolin’s gift (of saying the unsayable); the writer’s search for a lover; and a stream-of-consciousness song that praises particularities from everyday life (such as eating chicken gizzards on the #9 San Bruno while overhearing a father and son chatting about neighborhood gossip and the politics of war). Section five (141-65) offers, as noted above, a meditation on the figure of “the keeper” and the multiple forms of identity that margins may conceal/reveal, which segues into a reflection on the mother’s many roles across the arc of her life: smuggler, bootlegger, seamstress, disco dancer, business woman, and holder of a secret that kept the family together through the war years. The final passage (167-69), as noted above, attempts to move beyond the margin.

After closely reading Within the Margin (and, I should add, happily discovering that experience to be more exhilarating than I first led myself to believe it could be) I find it increasingly difficult to disconnect Tran's life from his art. On the one hand, I want to celebrate the degree to which the language, the personal, and the world-at-large deftly inter-animate one another. At the same time, however, I hope to see Tran, his future publications, and the reception of his work surrendering the margin (and the poetics of transposition) for good, defining a new ground (for language and life) beyond hyphenated identity and oppositional forms of discourse.


[1] Yes, there's a pun here—transposition and Tran's position vis-à-vis the margin trope—but I'll try not to overdo it. The point I do want to raise (by way of the pun and my argument) is that the margin is risky (if vital) territory for an artist to occupy. The work at the center of my essay, of course, is: Truong Tran, Within the Margin (Berkeley: Apogee, 2004), ISBN: 0-9744687-5-4, $16.95.

[2] I would like to meet Tran's text style-for-style. I'll occasionally insert passages like this one in order to trace some of the lines of flight (re: characters, images, plots, motifs) that animate Within the Margin.

[3] Why not political? There's certainly a political edge to Tran's writing, but, in my view, that level of worldly engagement remains powerfully implicit within his text's primary concern with the everyday social dynamics of the personal.

[4] I love the absence of page numbers, and I read the book several times without making a single mark in the margins, simply enjoying the pleasure of losing myself in the work's flow: no punctuation, no capitalization, etc. However, in order to come-to-terms with a reading of Within the Margin for the purpose of shaping this essay, I found myself impelled to annotate and numerate the text in specific places of interest. Any page numbering that follows thus emerged from that process of making my own mark. Within the Margin is an open system—an incompletely complete volume—that gives the reader plenty of freedom and responsibility (response-ability ) at the same time.

[5] See the following pages: 2, 17-20, 39-44, 61, 63-6, 104-11, 116-18, 141-43, 147-48, and 167-69.

[6] See these pages: 38, 102-03, 115, 140, 166, and 170-71.

[7] Truong Tran, “because” and “eight margins,” Lodestar Quarterly 9 (2004): <http://www.lodestarquarterly.com/issue/9/>.

[8] W. Scott Howard, “Human Crying Daisies: Prose Poems by Ray Gonzalez,” Double Room 4 (2004): <http://webdelsol.com/Double_Room/issue_four/Ray_Gonzalez.html>.

[9] For a tribute to Itzolin Valdemar Garcia, see: <http://www.itzolin.org/>.