‘Afterland’ by Mai Der Vang: A Review

By: Maison Horton

Smoke rising, black birds a-blur, all flight and dispersion through a grayscale wasteland—-this is the cover image that greets readers of Mai Der Vang’s Afterland, an enthralling debut deserving nothing less than acclaim and admiration. The collection is lush with the shadows cast by history, in which the speaker yearns to understand their ancestral origins and, by the end of the collection, completes their journey to the “afterland.”

Afterland is also timely in that it addresses themes of immigration; these themes about journeys are present throughout the collection. In “Transmigration” the speaker extends a branch of empathy to refugees alike: “I am refugee. You are too. Cry, but do not weep. // We walk out the door.” This declaration comes amidst the first of the poem’s six sections, titled only by the lines “Make me the monarch / morphed from suffering.” What follows is a series of poems that explores the grief (and mere slivers of hope) surrounding the Laotian “Secret War” of the 1960s.

Each section of the collection is organized similarly—-that is, each section is preceded by two lines on a single page, followed by poems covering similar subjects in their respective sections. An example of this structure occurs in the poem’s penultimate section titled, “My mouth is nocturnal.” A word like “nocturnal” is (easily) evocative of the night and its connotations, which encompasses all the senses; “nocturnal” means black, dark, waking in the night, but also quietude, ambience, whispers. The fifth poem in this section “Progeny” seems to reflect all things “nocturnal”: “Night comes in dyads: / Ravenlight, / Drumlands.” Vang challenges the reader to see the duality (“dyad”) by introducing compound words that appeal to more than one sense, just like the single word “nocturnal.” Throughout the collection, the reader encounters lines that say just enough, due to the poet’s careful attention to diction.

On duality, one of my favorite moments is in the poem “Final Dispatch from Laos.” Terms from the Hmong language—-the tongue of an Asian indigenous group—exist alongside Vang’s English lines. Vang talks about one particularly important image in the poem in the Notes section of Afterland:

“In ‘Final Dispatch from Laos’ the Hmong word ‘txiv’ means both ‘father’ and ‘fruit’ in the Hmong language.”

Let’s take a look at “txiv” in the context of its parent line, in the poem “Final Dispatch from Laos”: “A sweet leaf unable to father any txiv.” Note that “father” is used as a verb in this line; if we were to use Vang’s literal English translations, the line could read two different ways, either: “A sweet leaf unable to father any father,” or: “A sweet leaf unable to father any fruit.” Simply including txiv adds a pleasing dimensionality to just one line that unifies a natural image with the plight of being unable to bear children. There are no wasted words in this collection; Afterland is built on line after complex line, each one being integral to the speaker’s transformation as they journey to meet their ancestors in the “afterland.”

I strongly recommend Afterland for readers interested in ancestry, history, or even the spiritual tones and colors of our existence. Mai Der Vang’s shamanic voice is enchanting, and the visions in Afterland will leave readers breathless.

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Afterland, by Mai Der Vang. Graywolf Press. 2017.

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