Bao Phi’s Thousand Star Hotel and the vocabulary to overcome ourselves

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Bao Phi’s Thousand Star Hotel is poetry I’ll give to friends who aren’t into poetry. That’s not an insult; it’s a tactic he employs. For some reason, I know a lot of Asian American guys, immigrants who came when they were little (or close enough, one way or the other), and now raise daughters, think about their parents and ancestral roots, feel all kind of ways about the racism they’ve faced and the stories they could tell about dancing with white women while others giggled in the back, or being pushed down by truckers’ sons grasping for the entitlements they feel slipping, or being side-eyed about the legitimacy of our oppression or racial animus. His poetry is playful and moody, introspective and rebellious, some of it more deserving to be the spoken word it originated as, others that do a favor to the page. But it has rhythm and energy and nervy-ness that I like a lot, and I think the people I hand it to will too.

Throughout, few big or obscure words mask or grandstand. Phi’s poetry is composed of confessional frankness, sensuous moments laid with bare truths and the twists of human sentiments, and a dogged survival sense that makes his bluntness elegant. That’s why Asian guys I know who have no patience for poetry will feel at home, and challenged the way they like.

For all that accomplishment– and he accomplishes a lot, finding expression for fleeting sentiments and gnarling ambivalences and overwhelming beauties, like the “Thousand star hotel” of the title that I’ll leave for you to find– there is a marker throughout all of it of illegitimate inheritance of English. Granted in many places, his status as a deliverer of words is the sword he defends himself with, and brandishes against threats to his always assaulted identity. But in vulnerability, he also says in the first poem proper of the text (there’s sort of a prefatory poem that’s actually germane to this discussion as well), how language keep eluding him:

And I wonder

if I ever will find a language

to speak of the things

that haunt me the most. (6)

The stanza ends a poem entitled “Vocabulary” about an encounter with a coworker also gathering shopping carts admitting in guy-speak to his flush feelings for a girlfriend, who seems embarrassed by his own emotion and his words getting ahead of himself. Or as Phi puts it, “the vocabulary to overcome himself.”

This portrait of a man whose emotions get the best of him and spill out in an utterance of crude fervor is set against the busywork of “Maintenance,” lining up rows and rows of carts you manage and move like a train you have to test to see if it will hold so it doesn’t overtake you, and can get steered right enough to put away. This image of management, keeping your stuff together, lining up your words in a row. And then, they get ahead of you. They overcome you. Raw and tough as they are, they somehow capture you, and grab more out of yourself than you really knew how to manage or maintain within you.

Phi seems envious of that kind of language. Not those words to capture those experiences, those aren’t what he wants. But the access to those words that overcome you, rather than ever groping for the words, the language, the vocabulary to talk of things you’ve never heard talk of, trying to find the ways to say something that doesn’t feel like it has been said, or said quite right for you, or said quite true to your world. If only there was that language, that vocabulary, for our experience.

And that’s what Phi is up to, perhaps what any poet is up to. Looking for that place where you grab hold of the words that run you over like a train of carts, carrying you careening to expose yourself, or at least to unearth what’s there and not done, barely even begun, getting out.

All of which makes me appreciate Bao Phi for what he makes me want to do: not just to read, but to write too.