Wisconsin Poetry Series
Ronald Wallace and Sean Bishop, Series Editors
Winner of the Felix Pollak Prize in Poetry, selected by Carmen Giménez Smith
“I am so deeply moved by the subdued lyric force of this collection, if only subdued could capture the elegant control Nguyen exerts on his line. Sensuously constructed, in Come Clean he looks at the vast landscape of history through the desire for Marie Kondo’s order and a cure for imposter’s syndrome, in a book that’s as current as it is timeless.”
Joshua Nguyen’s sharp, songlike, and often experimental collection compartmentalizes past trauma—sexual and generational—through the quotidian. Poems aim to confront the speaker’s past by physically, and mentally, cleaning up. Here, the Asian-American masculine interrogates the domestic space through the sensual and finds healing through family and in everyday rhythms: rinsing rice until the water runs clear, folding clean shirts, and attempts at re-creating an unwritten family recipe. Yet past wounds remain present like permanent marker under layers of paint or spilled fish sauce set into car upholstery. Infused with the Shinto-inspired organizing practices of KonMari and the catchy nihilism of Mitski’s songs, the poems in Come Clean unpack, organize, and tidy up life’s messy joys and hurtful chaos with intimacy, grace, and vulnerability.
No matter how smattered my insides,
I am relieved that I left my room tidy—
One less ugly sight.
I always wanted to die clean & pretty
while my dreams made music in the night.
—Excerpt from “Last Words”
“An unflinching look at how one tries to make order and sense of the messy dazzlement of life. The word ardent is from ardere—which means to burn—and that is precisely what I mean when I say I ardently admire this book, for it showcases an absurdly imaginative ear and heart. Nguyen is one of the strongest poetic debuts you’ll come across this decade.”
“Nguyen writes with equal parts inventiveness and honesty, opening possibilities for wonder within even the most painful of inheritances. Witty, deeply caring, and unafraid of mess, he is an exciting and necessary voice for the future of Asian American poetry.”
“If ever there was a language to add to masculinity a tenderness it’s starved for, it is found in Joshua Nguyen’s debut collection. . . . While Come Clean is a first book, the poems’ ability and virtuosity suggest Nguyen is a poet who has already spent a great deal of time tending his craft and performance.”
—Mississippi Books Page
“The collection is a huge success with a profound resonance. While it tackles many difficult subjects, it does so with such nuance and beauty that the poems ache to be read, not just once, but many times over.”
“Coming Clean is a journey of making peace with life and its uncertainty, cruelty, and flaws. . . . The collection explores the relationship between the Asian identity in relation to fetishization, white saviors, the ‘American dream,’ and self-assurance. . . . If there is one thing to take from Come Clean, it is this: We are not tainted by the things that have happened to us — we are the parts we choose to claim.”
—Asia Media International
“Nguyen uses both more traditional and invented forms to portray the many dimensions of his anxiety around truth telling throughout the book and sequences them in a compelling way to create tension and surprise.”
“Come Clean serves as a manual on survival, self-reclamation, and living through and beyond the scars of a patriarchal and problematic world that seeks to unfold every neatly pinned t-shirt and tucked corner. It shows us how to bear a burden too long and how to purify ourselves clean. But moreover, it reminds us that we are not the things that happen to us, but are all of the ways we rebuild ourselves after we are knocked down. Joshua Nguyen reminds us that the act of truth-telling may be an act of the individual, but it sparks bravery through the masses. We are reminded to push against the isolating safety of denial and embrace a new strength.”
“Offers a unique methodology, using language to facilitate the process of compartmentalizing trauma and grief. The collection is bold in its refusal to forget its trauma and grief, the refusal to sweep it all under a rug. Instead, Nguyen takes each broken piece of it and holds it properly up to the light, allows it to take up as much space as it needs, reassembles it back into something resembling the whole, and finally, puts it away carefully. Unafraid to show his work, we get down and dirty right alongside Nguyen through the whole process, but given Nguyen’s masterful arrangement of language, we all walk away clean.”
“Nguyen’s work deflects and refracts like frosted glass in sunlight. . . . Nguyen demonstrates keen skills of observation—observational humor, defamiliarization, self-consciousness, and self-awareness. He watches the reader watching him; he watches himself, then watches himself watching himself.”
—The Georgia Review
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