Bryan Thao Worra's Demonstra is an exuberant collection, full of marvelous tales, inventive wordplay, and sly humor. The creature on the cover captures the spirit of the poems: it's sinuous, spiny, open-eyed, and smiling—perhaps with a hint of menace. Thao Worra's poems revel in their own monstrosity, in their mixing of languages and influences from Laos, the United States, and elsewhere (a basic monster recipe being: combine two or more things that don't "normally" go together). There's a prickliness to them: "Carl Sagan would hate our demon-haunted world," says the speaker in "Gop Nyai," in a tone of obvious satisfaction. These are poems that don't care if they're hard to swallow. Yet, as the title suggests, there's more to this collection than spines. Demonstra draws attention to the link between "monster" and "demonstrate." The poems seek to demonstrate a complex identity that, embracing the monstrous, refuses to be reduced to the sum of its parts.
Many of the poems are narratives. "The Terror in Teak" sets a Lovecraftian tale in Laos, where "monkey-eyed chance" reveals a horror in the wall of an old French villa (p. 25). The long poem "The Dream Highway of Ms. Mannivongsa" spins out a migration story that uses the connectivity of the other world to overcome barriers in this one:
Old Madame Yaga likes to come count spoons
When most other people are sleeping, but she runs into
Ms. Mannivongsa frequently enough they both smile
Whenever they see each other now.
"Rodina, Mississippi, Mekong, Amazon,
All same river to simple fish like us,"
She always laughs. (p. 79)
Like "The Dream Highway," "The Robo Sutra" treats cross-cultural experience with humor, but this time in a futuristic mode: Lao factory workers in North Minneapolis invent an artificial intelligence that runs the city according to Buddhist principles—at the price of nonstop Lao elevator music. "Pla Bluek" takes the form of a fairy tale, in which the weekly allowance "snatched" by an immigrant's children forms an uncomfortable parallel to the magic piece of gold he swallowed and excreted, again and again, as a child in a refugee camp. Demonstra, which has been nominated for the Bram Stoker Award, bristles with creepy creatures; "Silosoth's Secret Roads to Himapan" offers a partial list:
You cannot catalog the many wandering in these woods:
One leg, two legs, three legs, four legs, five legs,
Six legs, seven legs, eight legs, infinitely more, or none.
Some with wings, with hooves, or the strangest toes,
Tentacles, tusks, talons, or tendrils for your tales.
Some part bird, part stag, part "fish" or kraken.
Some part cloud, part kirin, part elephant or lean lion.
Some part star, part rhino, or part thundering horse.
Some part cow, part dog, part cat, or part cranky crab.
Some part crocodile, part Nak, or part frail human . . . (p. 51)
Thao Worra draws enthusiastically from folklore, fantasy, science fiction, and horror, so that the collection leaves the impression of an anthology of tightly-written flash fiction pieces.
The language varies. In many of the story poems, it speeds along smoothly, privileging the narrative flow. In others, like "The Terror in Teak," it slows, growing gnarled and crablike, perhaps as part of the homage to Lovecraft, or to emphasize the events described here:
But, before more could be done to advance
Nascent anthropology or comparative theology,
Chaos came in the saw-toothed shape of rebellions.
Sanguine intrigue bloomed, wine-hued fleurs du mal.
Reason slowed to a crawl the color of night. (p. 25)
In the love poems, and the poems about war, the language grows poignant; a standout in this category is "Flowers from Saturn," which employs the tropes of dystopian science fiction to express real-world horrors:
In our desperate flight of blood,
We became bamboo. Others, ash.
Rockets meant for space
Littered our abandoned, perfumed cities. (p. 134)
What I find most memorable about the collection, though, is its lively, irreverent humor. Consider the opening of "Zombuddha":
Utters, "Om," not "Brains."
Is not attached to the body.
Is not attached to the mind. (p. 37)
This provokes a laugh that's almost a gasp, a reaction to the shock of the comparison. But then the laughter opens a door, for isn't there, perhaps, something Zen-like about zombies? The description starts to become convincing:
Will not touch money or liquor.
Is beyond the vices of lust and greed.
Not one possession of the past matters.
Old names are useless.
Accepts every moment with equanimity.
No fear. No pain. No anger. No jealousy.
Burn him. Cut him. Shoot him. Flee him.
It is the same. (p. 37)
"Zombuddha" demands a reconsideration of the idea of living death. The use of humor as a key to unlock a fresh perspective is characteristic of these poems, and helps to draw the collection together. The repeated appearance of themes and creatures also gives the book cohesion: the reader of "Zombuddha" will recall a line from the first poem in the collection, "Idle Fears," in which the speaker asks, "Does a zombie have a Buddha nature?" (p. 15). The hint in "Idle Fears" becomes a full-fledged argument in "Zombuddha," one that—like a monster—is both startling and recognizable.
Reading Thao Worra is like sitting down with a lucid, argumentative companion, who will entertain you, challenge you, make fun of you, and make you think. With lovely illustrations by Vongduane Manivong (I wish there were more of them), a wonderful "Lao American Bestiary" (Appendix A), and a list of "Cthulhu Mythos Entities in Laos" (Appendix C—you'll believe it when you see it), Demonstra seems like the handbook of a new mythos—perhaps, to borrow a title from one of the poems, a "Laonomicon." But "Laonomicon," that poem warns us, is "not its real name"—and even as the new mythology unfolds, the poet evinces a distrust of myth-making projects:
If our words don't speak
What's in our souls and skulls,
We will forget ourselves,
Our bodies, our shapes,
And the true shape of the Southeast Asian
American poem of tomorrow will become
An exercise in modern myth. ("What Is the Southeast Asian American Poem of Tomorrow?" p. 149)
Thao Worra's determination to speak what's in his soul and skull yields a weird, witty, and linguistically rich collection, written in a defiantly unhyphenated voice.
Sofia Samatar is the author of the novel A Stranger in Olondria (Small Beer Press, 2013). Her poetry, short fiction, and reviews have appeared in a number of places, including Clarkesworld Magazine, Weird Fiction Review, Stone Telling, and Goblin Fruit. She is the nonfiction and poetry editor for Interfictions: A Journal of Interstitial Arts. She blogs at sofiasamatar.blogspot.com.