Pos Moua’s grandmother sometimes warned him against chucking stones at nothing in particular, mostly because she believed the mountains of Laos were inhabited by ghosts who, though not necessarily malevolent by nature, could turn vengeful if their spirits were disturbed by rocks hurled carelessly in their direction.
Karst Mountains Will Bloom, a collection of Pos Moua’s poems, is titled after those Laotian mountains of his early childhood.
“You remember the Thai boys who were stranded in the cave last summer?” Pos reminds me during a recent interview. We are seated outside Starbucks on Yosemite Avenue, and our conversation is interrupted by motorcycles with ear-splitting exhaust systems and sirens from fire trucks rushing to an emergency. “Those were karst mountains.”
Karst terrain is comprised of limestone and other porous rocks, and over time as water flows through and over those rocks, caves are formed. In Pos’s introduction to the collection, he explains the importance of karst mountains in Laos.
“Karst mountains cannot bloom in the perspective of human time, but over geological time flowers can and will grow in the rocks.” Pos finds hope and solace in what he calls “the inconsolable. . . mountains that live in deep time the way I do not.” In our interview, he tells me that the karst mountains represent hope because they are a testament to how, even in the darkest places, blossoms can eventually occur.
Pos lost his grandparents, aunts and uncles, and most of his paternal relatives in the karst mountains of Laos during the Secret War. While fleeing to Thailand, Pos also lost a sister to starvation, an event that inspired “Poem from Laos,” the first poem in the collection. It is a poem he still has difficulty reading.
It is this deep personal empathy and pathos that characterizes Karst Mountains Will Bloom, which is divided into four sections. “The Old Country” is marked by poems detailing the Hmong experience during the Vietnam War. Other sections include poems about the Sierras, which remind Pos of the mountains of Laos. In his brief essay at the end of the collection, Pos writes about having worked as a seasonal firefighter along the headwaters of the Merced River. “I came to feel a deep affection for this region,” he states. For Pos, the Sierra Nevada Mountains provided the solace and spiritual comfort he might have found in the karst mountains, had the war not driven his family from their home in Laos.
The book also includes poems about life, death, and renewal, such as “Little Arrival,” which links his child to “the uneven space left by . . . those who have passed in order for you to return to this world.” The collection, with a foreword by California poet Gary Snyder, a mentor of Pos’, also includes eight poems by other well-known poets, including Yu-Han Chao, who will read with Pos at the Merced Multicultural Center on Friday, April 19.
Though Pos acknowledges his role as a poet who can speak for Hmong culture and history, he does not think of himself as a Hmong poet. He came to the United States in 1980 when his family settled in Spokane for a few years before moving to Merced. He attended local schools and graduated from Merced High before attending UC Davis where he earned a Master’s in English. After college, Pos embarked on a teaching career at his old high school. He married in 1994, fathered five children, and for about 22 years, taught high school English while also working part-time as an instructor at Merced College. But poetry has been his abiding life’s work.
“My family has always been in the line of singers,” Pos explains. “Hmong singers are the poets of Hmong culture, and they assume the role of singing at funerals and other important events. It is their responsibility to communicate deep sorrow. My mother’s brother was a singer-poet. He was famous in Laos for his beautiful voice. Singer-poets perform at funerals as though they are the father or grandfather of the deceased.” But Pos was not blessed with his uncle’s voice.
So, instead of singing his sorrows and joys, Pos turned to writing them down in poetic form at an early age. Eventually he studied his favorite Western poets. He admired William Wordsworth and T.S. Eliot. He was taken by the sweeping landscapes and the humanity of Walt Whitman’s poems. He enjoyed the rhythms of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Edgar Allan Poe. These writers instilled in him a passion that remains evident even now when he talks about poetry.
“I think a poem is born in the poet and then the poet gives it voice. A poem is based on the poet’s spirit. It has to be honest, relatable to human beings. We can embellish it with the tools of poetry but we cannot invent the honesty. It takes devotion, but I think most people misconstrue the difference between time and devotion. Time is a by-product of poetry. When I write, I want to create a piece that comes alive, so I have to dedicate myself to the life of the poem. You have to stay with the poem. It’s like picking a flower; you can’t pick it and then try to put it back.”
Currently, Pos is working on an autobiography. Having been diagnosed with nasopharyngeal cancer, he is thinking about what the future will hold, and he has decided to leave behind a prose narrative, in addition to his poetry, to speak to coming generations. But he is still primarily a poet; he is writing his autobiography—laced with metaphor, in pieces—just as a poet would. And in his final poem of the collection, Pos addresses mortality with the honesty and poetic lyricism that has always guided his writing: “When this poem is, or/ when I am, white and gray/ ashes in the crematory/ this poem, bold inks of my/ morning, will raise up my soul like clouds . . . I shall not cave into oblivion.”
Pos Moua will read from Karst Mountains Will Bloom this Friday, April 19, at the Merced Multicultural Arts Center at 645 W. Main Street. The reading, featuring Pos and Yu-Han Chao, will begin at 7 p.m. The event is free and open to the public, and the authors’ books will be available for sale. Karst Mountains Will Bloom, published by Blue Oaks Press, is also available through various online services, including Itasca Books, Amazon, and Barnes & Noble.com.
Brigitte Bowers is a lecturer in the Merritt Writing Program at UC Merced.