“Given / the practice to call things gone, / how shall I speak of the line, / which neatly remains?” This question is at the heart of Nicole Tong’s haunting debut collection How to Prove a Theory. Through variations in line, Tong incants the dead, her elegiac poems long to give form to a grief which is never static, but always searching for theories. The line, though varying in length and type, remains as a kind of proof of existence. The line ultimately gives order to the chaos, it appears neat, and yet there is so much pain, memory, and psychic energy still rattling in each line. Tong has a way with questions, which are often hard to integrate into contemporary poetry well, she does it brilliantly. Theories begin by questioning and then creating hypotheses. While reading this book I wrote down my first question which was— what happens when grief strives for order? And the answer was of course: this collection.
Six short hypothesis appear throughout How to Prove a Theory. These hypothesis, with all their pith and brevity, provide visual and thematic anchors to the collection. In order of how they appear in the collection, two in each of the three sections, I’ve written what appears to be the main implication of each hypothesis. Note, these are my own interpretations—
1. The world of the dead is sealed, so the living must tell their stories.
2. To capture the dead we must do the impossible work of looking at them directly.
3. In a state of danger/vulnerability truth is revealed.
4. Sometimes narration is an intrusion and yet-
5. Words are crucial to healing wounds; through words we gather strength and direction.
6. Though, in order to live, we eventually have to leave the dead behind us.
From these hypotheses, theories form and become poems: “Grief Theory;” “Nocebo Theory;” “Generational Memory Theory;” “Maternal Theory;” “No Theory;” “Intimacy Theory;” “Inaccurate Theory;” amongst others, including one of the strongest poems of the collection, “Theory of the Living.” In “Theory of the Living” Tong’s eye expands, her grief becomes the grief of all those left behind to cobble together a life after loss:
…Wasn’t there always
milk in the air, covering remains
until nothing died anymore? Won’t the crows
come back? Didn’t the others come to our aid?
Couldn’t the maps save us? Tell us where?
Was this the first time I was shattered,
remade as the still of a snapshot?
I can’t say why some birds didn’t fly.
Can’t name one good reason
for which things stay.
Grief is distilled into questions, which reveal Tong’s desperate quest for answers. The birds that fly away, the spirits of the dead, take away the colors of the earth and what remains is “a color you can’t see through.”
The marrow of the collection, section two, which begins with “Theory of the Living” is emotionally devastating. In the intimate elegy “Grief Theory,” the speaker sneaks away to the bathroom to listen to the voicemails of a friend who dies after giving birth. In my opinion, elegy is the most difficult poetic form, in part because the poet must reenact and reanimate an initial grief that was traumatic to the poet as well as the stages of that grief. Tong’s does this in a remarkable way in the closing lines of this poem, “Grief reminds me of the silence behind the curtain / in your hospital room. The plaster casts of your hands // your children will live to fill. A curl / cut from your hair gently unravelling.”
In Kevin Young’s anthology The Art of Losing: Poems of Grief and Healing, he writes, “The thing about death is: it isn’t symbolic, but very real.” The poems in Nicole Tong’s How to Prove a Theory, are very real; the grief she explores for her father, for her friend, for her husband’s brother, for a miscarried child, is both mundane and expansive, ever-present as breath. And yet, by transforming her pain into the vivid poems in this collection, Tong has created a place for her grief to live outside of her own body. Poem by poem, Nicole Tong proves each of her hypotheses, and through this process of theorizing, she eventually accepts that she continues to breathe.
How to Prove a Theory
Washington Writers’ Publishing House
Brunch: On hot afternoons I occasionally find myself craving a nice cold egg salad sandwich and a glass of lemonade. I make my egg salad simply with good mayonnaise, and organic whole grain mustard and lots of freshly cracked pepper, a bit of dill, and a dash of sea salt. I always toast up some whole grain bread and let it cool while I prepare the egg salad. I like to top my sandwich with arugula and green onions and serve it with Bubbies pickles.