Reviewed: The Protection of Ghosts, Natalie Linh Bolderston

The poems in this debut pamphlet are filled with ghosts – not ‘physical’ ghosts, but the ghosts of the past that live in the present through inter-generational stories and experiences. Natalie Linh Bolderston weaves a haunting tapestry of trauma, exile, cultural legacy and loss in poems that examine the scars left by the atrocities of the Vietnamese war.  

From the opening poem we see the traces left by intergenerational experiences as the poem shifts from her mother peeling fruit to her grandmother peeling fruit, a change in direction that is deft and subtle, highlighting from the start that experience echoes down the family line. While in the opening poem this experience is the simple act of meal preparation, later in the collection these experiences become more traumatic, filled with the nightmare of war. In ‘My mother’s nightmares’, the poet absorbs her mother’s dreams, moving from “My mother’s nightmares taste like seawater and vomit, handfuls of spat blood” to her own horrors “There is a garden where her skin is drying on the line, a handful of her hair on the lawn.” It is an interesting concept that we absorb our ancestors’ pain through their stories – one that is more deeply examined in ‘When Ba Ngoai tells stories’:

“Sometimes, my mother writes them down,

And I fall asleep with them pressed

Against my hips. By morning,

They have entered my body-”

In ‘Operation Ranch Hand’ these traces of past experiences form physical scars as women are forced to live with the aftereffects of chemical warfare:

“She does not know about the scar

That is forming inside, that her daughter

Will be born wordless on a stretcher.”

Bolderston’s images are incredibly visceral, rooted in the physical body and filled with the grotesque : “…they are tuberous/ bloated with other stories”, making the history she refers to incredibly personal – history becomes herstory in many of these poems with their sinister evocation through the detail. 

What’s also interesting is the way she explores the notion that we can never fully shed our past – or the influence it will have on our future. In ‘Reflection’ we see how her mother tries to limit the impact of her past trauma on her daughter “Years later, she erases/ her name from mine.” and see the effect this has as things come full circle by the end of the poem when “Each night, I leave a kiss on her eyelids, /begin to stitch her skin over mine.” There is a sense that despite the stories that are passed on, there are still gaps in understanding that Bolderston tries to fill by imagining her relative’s experiences, by becoming them she absorbs their experience. Although the pamphlet ends with the beautiful Aubade, for me the most poignant ending was in the penultimate poem ‘From Ba Co to Ba Ngoai’, a message filled with yearning and hope that ends on:

“When you return from the cold,

Show me the shape of the water you crossed,

The blue air in your lungs.”

A stunning debut that tells a story of survival, woven with love, warmth and some truly beautiful phrases that evoke a different world: “sea snakes/ropes of liquorice.”

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