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By Ginger Tran

Named for the most colorful of gemstones, TOURMALINE by Ginger Tran is a collection of poems that reflects a kaleidoscope of emotional disquietude. The stone–a composite of many different chemicals–is an apt symbol for this ambitious volume of more than 100 poems. Each mines the depths of the human condition, addressing themes of relationship, suffering and self-discovery. Some pointedly dissect the pain body, while others offer gentle nudges toward a place of healing. Tran eschews capitalizations throughout, which lends a deceptively light feel to the heavy themes.

The voice of the poems, which alternate between first and second person, is like a restless traveler whose destination is ultimately oneself. The human psyche is treacherous terrain that Tran does not shrink from, exploring every rocky pathway and dark pitfall. There is a definitive air of mental suffering inherent in most all the poems, with Tran sometimes coming across more as therapist than patient. Consider this excerpt from a poem called “open”:

depression happens when
there is an over-connectivity
in our brains;
it is not the lack of feelings.
but rather, feeling so much
that the mind mistakes it
for an intruder.

And this one titled, “beyond what pain can ever deceive”:

at one point, the pain you feel
will cease to feel like suffering.
like a burden that is always
tormenting you. plunging you towards
your most fought against nightmares.

But Tran is most effective when she speaks from the soul-numbing perspective of the one afflicted, using her words to help the reader not just feel, but see. Consider this excerpt from the poem, “spine”:

but then i remember quite concretely
you pushing me onto my stomach,
pulling down my garments, revealing me,
climbing on top of me.

and i realize now the real possibility
of me fully rearranging my insides
to zone in on just what was happening;
aware but detached,
some form of control but controlled,

as if i could protect a part of myself
by literally watching my own back –

The horror of this personal attack transcends the detachment of a story retold, gripping the reader by the eyeballs as well as the mind. Though Tran could dispense with adverbs here (“quite concretely,” “literally,”) and in some of her other poems, the largely spare delivery serves to heighten the sense of victimization.

The volume, divided into three sections, plumbs the past, present and future and gives intimate glimpses into the growing pains and inner conflicts born of personal hardship. While the size of the volume makes reading it feel at times like an effort in self-flagellation, Tran’s beautiful use of images and spare, simple language speak truthfully to the human condition and, thereby, create connection.

Like a series of skin-deep selfies, TOURMALINE is a beautifully crafted collection of poems that invites the reader to take a lingering look at the wounding effects of love, loss, self-discovery and trauma. Though a bit lengthy, there are plenty of gems that stand out to make it a volume worthy of anyone’s poetry bookshelf.

~Libby Wiersema for IndieReader