Recently, I taught Genaro Kỳ Lý Smith’s The Land Baron’s Sun: The Story of Lý Loc and His Seven Wives (2014) for the first time, and during this read through, I began to think about the topic of the American Dream even more along with colonization and intrusion. These themes pop up in numerous poems throughout the collection, and I have written about them before. Today, though, I want to focus on “Fidèle,” a poem that appears later in the book and talks about Pham and her family’s new life in North Louisiana.
“Fidèle” begins by outlining the religious landscape of Ruston. The town does not have any synagogues, pagodas, or temples; rather, it has “only churches whose steeples/ are wooden hands formed in prayer” (84). From the very beginning, we are told to question the Boudreaux family in the poem based on the title, ““Fidèle,” French for faithful. The Boudreauxs, with their children and dog, repeatedly ask Pham, as she works in her family’s garden, to come to church with them someday. Pham declines these invitations as her husband instructs her.
In part three of the poem, the family arrives at the same time, “baring their legs and arms as white as teeth” and proceed to ask Pham if she would like to come to Church with them (85). This line carries with it connotations of militaristic action and force through its us of “baring arms” and “baring teeth,” two forceful phrases that call to mind aggression. Instead of coming as peaceful messengers, Pham sees them as a colonizing force in much the same way that Monsieur and Mademoiselle Jolibois appear earlier in the collection.
With halos adorning their heads, the family stands above Pham as she kneels in her garden. this placement, of course, suggests that the Boudreauxs appear superior or in control while Pham, in a kneeling posture, is subservient or less than the American, Christian family. The most important moment, though, occurs as the family stands above Pham.
Seth picks up an onion from my colander of harvest
and hurls it like a baseball and the proud Boudreaux’s smile;
Noah lifts a leg against the lemon grass
and I grip tight the trowel: “Yes, I will go.”
Their smiles take in more joy than they deserve,
their eyes glint with the prospect of witnessing, (84)
Even though the Boudreaux family does not militarily invade Pham’s space as the “baring” line brings to mind, they violate her space in ways that make her finally acquiesce and give in to their pleas for her to join them at church.
This violation occurs, first, when the Boudreaux boy Seth reaches into Pham’s colander, removes and onion, then “hurls it like a baseball,” while the rest of the family stands around and smiles at the boy’s athletic prowess. They do not approach Seth to correct him and say that what he does is wrong in any way; instead, they merely accept the action and praise the throw. Likewise, we do not see any reprimand for the family dog Noah as he lifts his leg and urinates on the lemon grass growing in the family garden. Seth throws the harvest away without any regard to Pham, and Noah essentially pisses on the family’s connection to their past.
Inside the garden, Pham plants herbs that remind her of home, and she has to travel sixty miles to Shreveport to purchase them. In this way, she works to maintain a connection with what her and her family left behind in Vietnam; however, the Boudreauxs shun that connection, consciously or not, by refusing to correct Seth or Noah when each defiles the garden. Likewise, they refuse to acknowledge Pham’s relationship to her past when they decline to pray to Buddha with her for her ancestors if she goes to church with them.
Later, in part IV, the antagonism towards Pham and her family takes a more violent turn. She awakes one morning filled with wrath as she sees the garden destroyed and racist slurs sprawled on the driveway. As her husband and her scrub off the graffiti, she begins to think:
All I can think of is the wrath I feel–the hope of their freckled flesh festering with boils,
of locusts ravaging God’s landscape of steeples and marquees welcoming the weary and lost,
with everlasting fire consume their cemeteries adorned with crosses
and prayerful gray gowned, marble angels. (85-86).
Within her thoughts, Pham thinks about burning crosses, and earlier in the poem, she comments on the glimmering crosses that the family wears. As a symbol of the Boudreauxs, and of supposed “Christians,” the cross takes on a specific meaning, of course. However, we also need to think about it in a greater context as well.
The preceding poem, “The Bottom Dreamers: Tú Đức, Minh, Thanh, and Bảo,” chronicles the trials of three immigrant fishermen as they work to make enough money to hopefully open a restaurant one day. When they go out to the Gulf of Mexico, they see “the parade of boats brandishing burning crosses/ to ward off the Negro and Asian fishermen” (82). Of course, the burning cross is a symbol of oppression and subjugation, and ultimately a warning to the fishermen that certain people will not accept them in the community.
In “Fidèle,” the cross still symbolizes oppression, but instead of causing fear, Pham sees it as something that she can burn and destroy. The action becomes flipped here. Pham thinks about enacting the violence on those who profess Christ because they do not adhere to his tenants and refuse to accept her and her family for who they are. We can even think about the “wooden hands” of the steeples at the beginning of the poem because wood, unlike brick, easily burns. Through her thoughts, Pham fights back against the intrusion and violation that the Boudreaux family enacts upon her and her family.
There is more here, of course. What would be very beneficial would be a reading of this poem in relation to the poems about Mme. Jolibois and her father. (Note: French Father Alexander de Rhodes arrives in Vietnam in 1624 as the first missionary there. The project of colonization began as missionary work.) I do not have the space to do that here, but it is something that I may work on later. What are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham.
Kỳ Lý Smith,Genaro.The Land Baron’s Sun: The Story of Lý Loc and His Seven Wives. Lafayette: UL Press, 2014.