By Blaine Heydt
Hai-Dang Phan’s Reenactments exists in the in-between. Sorry Stranger Things fans, nothing otherworldly about it, this work is in this world and of this world. Reenactments’ “in-between” lies in the idea that life exists between our current and previous experiences. Phan’s collection brings together past and present, first-hand experiences and photographs/videos, and current happenings and memories. All of these dichotomies combine to posit that life is continually replayed, both individually and on a larger historic scale. Phan brilliantly threads translations of works by Vietnamese poets throughout the book. These translations become another form of retelling or re-envisioning as he connects his present to his family’s exodus from Vietnam to the United States. Yet this collection goes far beyond the individual experience of the Vietnam War, as it examines the larger impact of war on history and culture – ultimately culminating in a sense of connection through lived, imagined and remembered experiences.
The most concrete iteration of the way the past and the present meet in this collection is through the depiction of war reenactments. These reenactments happen repeatedly throughout the work, just as our minds often force us to play on repeat our own traumatic events. Mental obsessions of trauma can be isolating, yet in this work ongoing war reenactments bring people together and seem to be cathartic. This juxtaposition certainly complicates the idea of war. And still, war is not beautified here. “Fish in a Well” illustrates, with exacting truth, the pain of surviving war. This poem details the speaker’s cousin dropping a metal bucket into a well holding fish that will be fried, and each time throwing back a few and calling them the “lucky ones”… “But every day / the metal bucket / plunged down dozens of times / I knew it must be hell / for the survivors // Around that same time my uncle still remained in a / ‘reeducation camp’” (24). Phan is clear, the effects of this “survival” are everlasting and broad reaching.
Though Reenactments is a deeply personal work that seems to be a recounting of an individual story, it encompasses the story of generations – life, politics, history and the modern ways in which individual stories have weaved together humanity. This work allows us to realize that the reliving and retelling of the past is our present.