Amanda Galvan Huynh’s debut poetry book Where My Umbilical is Buried tells her Chicano family’s story. It is a scrapbook journey, taking us through towns of rural Texas and the lives of three generations, beginning with Huynh’s grandmother. It is an exploration of leaving and settling and of morphing into one’s surroundings and clinging to one’s heritage. I easily went along with Huynh to each place and into the lives of each woman. Her poems were extremely approachable.
Several poems from Huynh’s previous chapbook, The Songs of Brujería, are included here in this fuller collection and that title poem begins our journey. In it, as later throughout the book, Huynh will spatter various Spanish words among the English. I am mesmerized by her consistent voice which contains enough connotation that I, who later turned to google-translate for reassurance of the Spanish meanings, was pleased to find that I understood Amanda all along. Her word choices capture a magic to her traditional culture.
These were the nights/ my mother would take me onto the dance floor/ with her long black hair cumbia-ing to its own beat./ She would teach me how to listen to the magic/ found in those nights—as if all I had/ to do was press my ear to my pulse—to find my way home
But it is not only the magical spirit of dance that Huynh captures. She also captures the grit and determination of hard workers, be they women or men in the fields. She writes of her grandfather’s hands
they are born/ soft as cotton/ small but able/ to wrap around a stem/ they learn to grow/ with each season/ and drift like pollen/ they learn to callus/ along the edges/ learn to live with dirt/ under the nails
Individually, the poems are snapshots of specific times, yet together they form an incredible narrative arc. Divided into three sections, several of Huynh’s poems in the third section mirror poems found in the first section, in word choice but particularly in structure. It is a stark reminder of the ways that mothers and daughters both mimic each other and strive to differentiate themselves. Huynh has succeeded in describing the uniqueness of her family and culture while still capturing universal emotions. I wonder how many conversations Huynh has had with her own mother to know the details that she gives us.
She achieves a balance of matter-of-factness and tenderness. We never think she is trying too hard. Nothing is overwritten. In fact, she uses white space quite effectively. The title poem is positioned near the center of this collection and takes up a dozen pages, though the word count is not that great. There are also times when great swaths of empty page convey for us absence and I was particularly drawn to two poems written in the style of footnotes to photographs not even present.
I will read this book again and again. It is as image-filled as a screen play and I love the personifications of things, particularly the golden hoop earrings she receives at five years old and then puts away in middle school. Where My Umbilical is Buried is a love story.
Where My Umbilical is Buried by Amanda Galvan Huynh
Sundress Publications, 2023, $16 [paper] ISBN Number 9781951979430
Melanie McGehee has been a regular contributor for a local mom’s blog. Her love story was published in A Cup of Comfort. Her most recent poetry was published in SC’s 2022 fall lines. She is a graduate student in Wilkes University’s Creative Writing program and is working on a memoir.