Breaking Barriers, Building Beauty

Books & Literature Aug 13, 2023

by Blair E. Vandehey

True to its title, Fox Cities-based poet Gaochi Faith Vang’s Building Walls to Break Down disassembles and reconstructs the parameters of contemporary poetry.

Vang’s work is structured into four parts, each with their own theme. “Building Walls” recounts the different struggles that Vang has faced, such as fighting to preserve her Hmong heritage in America. “To Break Down” highlights moments of self-discovery in her fight to take back her life from the internal and external adversaries she faces. “And Rebuild” is the results of her reconnaissance, which she encourages her readers to fight for just as she did in “With You.”

Building Walls to Break Down is all about choosing yourself, no matter what the world may believe. For this reason, Vang makes a daring choice for a muse in contemporary writing; herself. Poets are observers by craft, so it is only natural for them to often find their muses in others. While this is beautiful in its own right, the fact that this outward focus can lead them to forget their own inborn magic is a tragedy. Vang is different; instead of gazing out through the window at what could be, she looks at her own reflection in the glass—she looks at what is. While it is a seemingly simple choice to be one’s own inspiration, striving to find a muse in that translucent reflection can be difficult, as one’s own beauty is never as opaque to oneself as it is to others. Considering that challenge, Vang’s resolve to find all she needs to write within herself is nothing short of revolutionary in contemporary poetry.

Building Walls to Break Down is a work Vang wrote not only for herself but for her readers. While she addresses the reader directly as “you,” there are other ways Vang welcomes the reader into her story. Early in the work, our author references a “She,” but never elaborates on who “She” might be. Vang doesn’t need to, however; since she never places an identity on “She” but gives her a relatable story—someone with a strong front, someone fighting inner battles, someone who refuses to give up no matter the hardships —the reader can more easily see themself reflected in this enigmatic character. At some points, “She” even appears to be Vang talking about herself. Even though Vang may use “I” and “She” interchangeably at times, she never explicitly states it. Thus, the reader is free to continue imagining themselves as “She,” which at times may align them with the author, connecting them to Vang on a more personal level.

Simplicity is easily Vang’s greatest strength, and no weapon wields this power more effectively than the bareness of her writing. As an avid reader of poetry, I am used to deciphering long metaphors that sometimes overstay their welcome – an occurrence can ruin the experience the work offers. With that in mind, it was a welcome surprise while reading Building Walls to Break Down to see this common practice rejected. While she does use some figurative language, she does so more sparingly than other poets. In place, assertive lines beginning with such phrases as “I am,” “This will,” and “You are,” are followed with an adjective of beauty or strength and—perhaps most potently—a period (a largely untapped power in works of poetry). The three-to-four-word sentences never lose their intended meaning because there is no other interpretation outside of what Vang is affirming.

“I am strong.” “The future will come.” “You are a survivor.”

As a reader, I am more willing to accept what the author is saying as true if the author believes it too—they say one cannot love others without first loving themself, after all. Vang succeeds in fostering her own certainty in her audience because the succinct affirmations she wields affirm not only the reader but herself; her writing is self-reflexive. The effectiveness is partially thanks to making sure her affirmations never work alone; she utilizes multiple lines one after another of definitive statements. Sometimes she repeats the original line, but most often, slight changes reflect multiple facets of what she is trying to say. As the assertions are steadily repeated, certainty flows into the reader from the author leaving no room for argument. All that is left for the reader to do is accept the truths that Vang lays before them.

“Time is patience. / Time is healing. / Time is growth.”

Vang’s Building Walls to Break Down is in itself an enchanting irony; only when expectations a reader has about a contemporary work of poetry are destroyed can something far more beautiful be created.

Building Walls to Break Down

Gaochi Faith Vang
Illustration by Nou Vwj
206 p., Release date: March 31st, 2019