The “thousand star hotel” of the title is a metaphor of the night sky, the roof of the homeless. Bao Phi’s prose poem attributes this to a self-deprecating Vietnamese joke. Who knows? It is just one of perhaps one thousand metaphors, images and turns of phrase that sparkle in this new collection.
Bao Phi is, for those like me who were not familiar with him, a Vietnamese-American from Minnesota, where has apparently resided his entire life since emigrating from Vietnam with his parents in 1975 when he was an infant. He is an active performance poet; this is his second collection.
“Thousand Star Hotel,” says the jacket copy, “confronts the silence around racism, police brutality, and the invisibility of the Asian American urban poor.” It certainly does that, and powerfully. One poem is trenchantly titled “When My Daughter Asks Me to Check and Make Sure Racists Can’t Come In and Kill Us”; it concludes:
We argue on the Internet while our kids beg us to lock the windows and doors.
Some of the commentary is sardonic, as in a second prose poem which starts:
All Asian American fans will now be forced to show ID at basketball games to prove they are an authentic fan of basketball and not just jumping on a Jeremy Lin bandwagon.
Bao Phi’s poetry is particularly pointed when read the week after Charlottesville, but some of the defiance is nonetheless gentle. The poem “Refugees from the Prom Center, the Eighties” begins:
Who says Asians can’t dance?
Old Viet people can cha-cha and tango
like their fee and hips
asked to be colonized.
But to read the poetry as activism would be to unfairly and inaccurately pigeonhole it. Bao Phi is, above all, a storyteller; in just a couple hundred words, he can detail with vivid precision characters, settings, dilemmas and denouements. These include encounters between boys in parking lots, altercations at the checkout line, the difficulties of inter-generational understanding when one generation had seen too much during the war. Many seem to be stories drawn from his own life. One is a vignette about a boy’s mother saying she’d been overcharged:
The lines are long and my mother insists
that the final amount is wrong.
The people behind— “the line of white people”—groans. “We both know what they’re thinking.”
Finally a manager comes, checks, and tell the cashier
she rang up twenty-two plants instead of two…
The boy concludes
If only I was old enough
To tell them to keep it;
it’s not my mom’s English
That is broken.
And then there are Bao Phi’s aching poems about—or perhaps to—his daughter:
Because she is perfect
even when she won’t let me sleep,
her elbows digging into my back,
my face buried from away
from the morning.
A daughter, he writes
so beautiful I can scarce believe you’re cast from me at all—
Bao Phi’s political and social commentary is timely and well-articulated, but one does not have to be au courant with American issues of social justice to appreciate his skill at telling simple stories: ordinary people become memorable and everyday situations unique.