Guest Editor Susan Nguyen: A Special Feature

I’ve been thinking and dreaming about the failures of language lately. How it has the power to make me feel small, to forget myself. This may sound strange coming from a writer and a poet – so often I talk about the possibilities of language. Even then, I recognize that the word possibility and language can be loaded, can mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people. Especially when you write in English, but it is not your “first” language. Or it is but not because you chose it. Language can start to feel like a trap and I’m not sure if I am the steel, the spring, or the thing caught within its jaws.

All three of the poets I reached out to for this special feature remind me that through language I can reach a place beyond it – to question how language and history derive its power, to remember my body and the world around it, to move and be moved. To imagine wildly.  

Chelsea’s poems echo in their quiet aches laid bare. I am especially taken with the way the private world and the natural world live and meld in her poetry, reminding us that we can be afraid, but we are not alone. These poems show us that the world makes space for many wonders, big and small, all worthy of attention. 

I know Nicole through her work as the translations editor of Hayden’s Ferry Review, where I am the editor. The first time I heard her read her poetry, I was floored. Her poems hum with a quiet rage, a clear-eyed scrutiny of power and colonialism, and a tender consideration of the self.

In Carlina’s poems, I am pulled forward by the momentum of sound and desire. She is a poet I turn to often when I contemplate the difficulty of speech—for me, both English and Vietnamese. (How to write through these gaps?) She shows us there are many ways to reckon with language.

—Susan Nguyen

The Guest Editor’s Selections:

Chelsea B. DesAutels
Two Hearts
Used Car Dealership
Nicole Arocho Hernández
I kiss the mouth of my failure
Debt past/oral
Carlina Duan
English as a Second Language

Susan Nguyen’s debut poetry collection Dear Diaspora (University of Nebraska Press 2021) won the Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Poetry, an Outstanding Achievement Award from the Association of Asian American Studies, a New Mexico-Arizona Book Award, and was a finalist for the Julie Suk Award. Her poems have been nominated for Best of the Net and a Pushcart Prize and have appeared or are forthcoming in The Academy of American Poets’ Poem-A-Day series, POETRY, The American Poetry Review, The Rumpus, Tin House, and elsewhere. The recipient of fellowships from the AZ Commission on the Arts, the Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing, and the 2022 Stanley Kunitz Memorial Prize from the American Poetry Review, she currently serves as the senior editor of Hayden’s Ferry Review.

Chelsea B. DesAutels

Two Hearts

And then one day my two-hearted
plea was answered. It was March.
The tulips lay anonymous
beneath the rotten leaves and no one
owned a ladder tall enough
to untangle the butterfly kite
from the black walnut. It’d been
this way for weeks. Hardly a blade
of sun. I gave up. I put the vitamins away.
I started a list of new ideas
for the future: one where I could
dig my hands into dirt and write
six poems a day. My family walked
carefully through the house.
I’d been carrying two equally heavy
possibilities: a child I could almost
feel, could almost see the small foot
pressing my skin, and the relief
of remaining intact. Both stood to sink me.
The weather did not improve. I grew
weary of metaphors of spring, wanting
only to know what would come
in fact. Like certainty could make
any truth more bearable, or polish
any longing clean.

Used Car Dealership

All the other poets are writing love poems
to their partners. And they’re good—
tender, with a shadow of mortality
or infidelity at the margins. And me? I need
to go for a hard walk. I need to scream in a forest.
I’ve been tacking pictures of self-
sufficient women and pink typewriters
to corkboard. I’m no good in bed.
Tomorrow we’re supposed
to buy a used car. We disagree
on how used. I wish I loved sex.
On a glittering day in May,
the magazine cut-out above my desk
reads, reminding me to write, to finish
a damn sentence. I’ve started so many things
I haven’t finished. A soup recipe.
A pregnancy. Once, a well-planned trip
around the world. I got scared
and took a job instead. Yesterday, while you
were out, it sleeted for hours and then froze
slick across every road—the whole city
sliding through an intersection.
It was kind of beautiful because no one
knew what would happen. What might wreck.
The birds are back. Kids are playing hockey
under the bridge at sunset. I got a haircut
and you said you liked it. Don’t forget
we have that appointment tomorrow
at the dealership with the red balloons.
Maybe we’ll get lucky and drive away
in something almost new.

Chelsea B. DesAutels is the author of A Dangerous Place (Sarabande Books), which was named a New York Times Editors’ Choice. She has received support from the Anderson Center at Tower View, Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, Inprint, Tin House Workshop, and others. Chelsea lives with her family in Minneapolis.

Nicole Arocho Hernández

I kiss the mouth of my failure

and it tastes of citizenship and
apple picking. Sweet, harshly.
Its tendering tongue coos me into
sleep with a run-down song
about feathers, maybe, or was it
bourbon. I dream of running
in place, a treadmill made
of every American thought
ever traversed through me.
Which means, I run over
all of me. I wake up quietly,
as if alive for the last time.
My failure’s hands point
to the exit sign. I, carnage
and carnaged, crawl efficiently
to the door bruised into lips.

Debt past/oral

after Puerto Rico’s Act 60

O but look at the thunder
claiming every inch of our tree
its green burning so vivid
everyone comes out to stare
perplexed at how swiftly
it turns to ash, O but
look at that crown of light
blue then red, its smoke
ascending as if a miracle
O but look at the foreigners
in their smart flammable suits
grazing around the charring bark
as if hungry, frolicking in a circle
as if praying for no more rain
O but look at the worn porches
their families approaching as if
running, as if holding
buckets of water, as if
drought, as if rain
as if it wasn’t beautiful,
as if the wind wasn’t kissing
every roof, every backyard
with ardent, combusting, pro
creating bliss. O but look
at the empty houses
cornering us
bald in their defeat,
as if 100% triple tax exemption
did not leak as if spring
shower as if sweet blister
into our void mouths
as if high net worth individuals
did not thrust our homes
with their expensive tongues
O but look at their coming faces
as if a money tree
was hot on their trails
that ideal ominous of their lips
O but look at the glowing aftermath
of all these fervors
O but look at the promises
in the investors’ eyes
O but look at the morning
dressed in foreclosure, bright—

Nicole Arocho Hernández was born and raised in Puerto Rico. Her poems have been published in The Acentos Review, Electric Literature, Honey Literary, The Academy of American Poets, and elsewhere. Her chapbook, I Have No Ocean, was published by Sundress Publications. She earned her MFA at Arizona State University.

Carlina Duan

English as a Second Language

after Maria Isabelle Carlos

anoint mouth in armor—articulate—bask in brash syntax—break in half—buff the words—B is for Balloon, Buoyant, Bildungsroman—brilliant, busy vocal shine—cite the mouths before you—colliding vowels—coining new ones—chiming vocal chords—to discordant dark—dress in that drizzle—entangle—enrage—enact!—hunger or hiccup—hurry or hustle—my itchy intuition—my immaculate I—they insist, insist—we were Just Joking—(armor)—we were Just Joking—armor—don’t kneel to that alphabet—knock it down—lumber through loosely (with caution)—loss is a low sound in the throat—Mary Had a Little Lamb—Mary Had Most of Her Manners—nursery rhymes—opaque—though original—ouch!—precious, the pulse or push of the tongue—as it strains to pick apart the pleasure of the old syllabic turn—quizzical, the curious shapes the new mouth attempts to draw—question after question—rotund and robust, rambunctious and round—stop—stop—treasure this time—before you’ve made or marooned another shoreline—before you’re tricked or tumbled or teased—unlearn what’s unnerving—what you have use for—what you voice or vindicate—water—waste—worry—xylophonic—yes—zest for sound—yes.


in the cool whip whirl of a day
when everything tastes of ash
& my body, sleep-deprived, lugs
itself through another day’s crescent
moon or purple shadow or gone
stranger’s smoky joint, then I see
the peppercorn, the mint in plastic
cups, the kumquat tree with its ripe golden
buds like jeweled droplets hung heavy
on branches. everywhere, tree branches
sway & move & grow from the root.
everywhere, another emergent green
frond or blade of grass. all around
me, bloom & curb, chiming
on: You live you live. then I see
passersby kissing each other on
the cheeks. a firetruck running
& running its glinting red light. a woman
stuffing dog treats into a rolling basket.
perhaps someday I will grow old of winding
everything into the poem’s sticky reel. but
today I do not make concessions. inside of me,
the world turns and turns. I eat.

Carlina Duan is the author of the poetry collections I Wore My Blackest Hair (Little A, 2017), and Alien Miss (Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 2021). Her recent poems can be found in POETRY, Narrative Magazine, The Kenyon Review, and other places. Carlina is the Poetry Editor of Michigan Quarterly Review. Among many things, she loves river walks, snail mail, and being a sister.