An Empty House Is a Debt

Diana Nguyen

1There is a house in me. It is empty. I empty it.Negative space: the only native emptiness there is.
There is

2An alarm goes off. It goes on and on. When the alarm
drifts to different parts of the room,I realize, that alarm is the sun.
3And there is no one who does not need,never an empty seat. And the blind one,he does not find a place. There is a god in him
helping him to need himself.
4A mother sticks a spoon into my chest,
which is an empty bowl, actually,so the spoon lands quickly
and loudly. Heartbreak in the heart! she says.
5I reach inside my empty house: as far as I’m allowed to go.
I reach outside my empty house: as far as I’m allowed to go.
6Or don’t love me, what do I care?
I am tired of feeling guilty; I am tired of running up a tab.I want to run outside with a sack of huge penises on my back
—into the empty houses of ex-lovers, of mothers, birds
screaming out my name.A human terrifies.
A human is someone who becomes terrified, and having become terrified,
craves an end to her fear.This craving carves a cave.
7What is a maze if there is nothing to find in the maze.
I find myself angry at nothing.
8My lovers bow before me as though before Medusa.
Tell them you love them. See what they say.Or say it to yourself, and see what you say.When you love someone
more than you’ve ever known you could, it is
a good thing, except for the terrifyingrealization that one day there comes
a parting.

Feature Date

Series

Selected By

Share This Poem

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on email

Print This Poem

Share on print

Ghost Of elegizes a brother lost via suicide, is a mourning song for the idea of family, a family haunted by ghosts of war, trauma, and history. Nguyen’s debut is not an exorcism or un-haunting of that which haunts, but attuned attention, unidirectional reaching across time, space, and distance to reach loved ones, ancestors, and strangers. By working with, in, and around the photographs that her brother left behind (from which he cut himself out before his death), Nguyen wrestles with what remains: remnants of memory, physical voids, and her family captured around an empty space. Through lyric meditation, Nguyen seeks to bridge the realms of the living with the dead, the past with the present. These poems are checkpoints at the border of a mind, with arms outstretched in bold tenderness.

Ghost Of elegizes a brother lost via suicide, is a mourning song for the idea of family, a family haunted by ghosts of war, trauma, and history. Nguyen’s debut is not an exorcism or un-haunting of that which haunts, but attuned attention, unidirectional reaching across time, space, and distance to reach loved ones, ancestors, and strangers. By working with, in, and around the photographs that her brother left behind (from which he cut himself out before his death), Nguyen wrestles with what remains: remnants of memory, physical voids, and her family captured around an empty space. Through lyric meditation, Nguyen seeks to bridge the realms of the living with the dead, the past with the present. These poems are checkpoints at the border of a mind, with arms outstretched in bold tenderness.

Ghost of is truly a brilliant book. Amazing poetry happens inside visual innovations where “There is nothing that is not music, the pouring of water from one receptacle into another a coat of bees draped over the sack of sugar caving in on itself.” Poetry is found in the gaps, silences and ruptures of history. In “An Empty House Is a Debt” the poet writes: “There is a house in me. It is empty. I empty it. / Negative space: the only native emptiness there is.” These poems mean to make a song of emptiness and the spaces we house. They sing to and for the ghosts of identity, exile, and history. They sing like a ghost who looks from the window or waits by the door. Lyric fills in the holes in the story. Ghost Of is unforgettable.”
—Terrance Hayes, judge of the Omnidawn Open

“Dina Khoi Nguyen’s Ghost Of is nothing short of an extraordinary debut. At its center is the haunting disappearance of a brother, gone by suicide. These poems are uncanny renderings of an invisibility made visible by the sheer will of candor, bemused forms, agility of lexicon, and a voice, almost noiselessly extravagant. What she gives us, she takes away; nearly impossible transformations transform. “Something keeps not happening” she writes. And then she causes it to happen in a language of grief—bold and often colder than most daring, exquisite acts. Nothing here is ever entirely complete—ghost of mourning, ghost of yearning, ghost of the kiln unfilled with the probable impossibility of an afterlife. It is as if a medieval scholar were transcribing an ancient Latin manuscript, pieces of script are missing, illegible, annulled by time. The scholar writes in the margins Desunt Non Nulla—signifying—Not No Things Are Missing, Nguyen’s voice is both wraithlike and astonishingly frontal; this is one of the most gifted first books I’ve read.”
—Lucie Brock-Broido

“Across these pages, sound makes shapes that, in turn, shape sounds, creating a complex weave in which absence figures as vividly as presence, and in which the absent are, in fact, present—in the faces so neatly cut out of the photographs . . . a haunting tribute to those we always carry with us, Nguyen’s stunning first collection explores the layered losses of displacement, migration, and death in ways that take full responsibility for the particularity of each individual’s experience. Written with equal parts frankness and compassion, the book radiates a very human generosity throughout.”
—Cole Swensen

“Diana Nguyen’s “Ghost Of” is an astonishing scrapbook of lyric poems and photos where the central muse—her brother—is violently cut out. Poems are shaped into his silhouette as if Nguyen is trying to anatomize his tragic absence with pained and urgent remembrance. Nguyen writes with haunted precision and wondrous innovation. “Ghost Of” breaks my heart.”
—Cathy Park Hong

Poetry Daily Depends on You

With your support, we make reading the best contemporary poetry a treasured daily experience. Consider a contribution today.