By Genevieve Hartman
Graywolf, 2021. 224 pp. $17.00
“Yellow rain” began falling from communist-controlled aircrafts in 1975 as the Hmong people fled communist takeover in Laos. What was this yellow rain? Why did it fall? What did it do? These questions churn throughout Mai Der Vang’s second poetry collection, Yellow Rain, as Vang, the daughter of Hmong refugees who fled this rain, contends with a heartbreak that is both personal and global. Wikipedia describes the substance as harmless bee droppings, citing a 1987 opinion piece from the New York Times; Britannica says that the matter has never been settled. Yellow Rain has a different story to offer.
Weaving together the strands of personal testimony, declassified U.S. government documents, and personal research, Vang reframes the narrative of yellow rain, giving crucial weight to the witness of Hmong survivors. She unabashedly tells the world that this was no naturally occurring anomaly—these were poisonous attacks meant to harm and tranquilize the Hmong people, an experiment of biochemical weapons. The symptoms caused by yellow rain attacks line the pages of at least a quarter of the book.
Rather than solely writing in her own words, Vang presents much of this story through collages of declassified Army documents and medical reports. The bits and pieces of information that the reader receives parallel the overall chaos and confusion that emerged in the wake of the yellow rain’s devastation and the United States’ paltry investigation of the phenomenon. “Ever Tenuous,” for example, consists completely of dated reports about biomedical samples shipped to the U.S. for testing. Over the course of five years, the reports are all the same: due to poor packing and lack of oversight, the samples taken from yellow rain survivors have been destroyed in transit and are unable to shed any light on the cause of death and disease. Vang’s presence as author is apparent only in the arrangement of the report fragments next to each other, and, perhaps most importantly for this poem, through the title. Could the investigation have been an earnest attempt with some honest mistakes? That tenuous thread of belief might have explained one or even two failed shipments, but the inability to stabilize and ship fragile samples even one time in five years is clearly no coincidence. And Vang astutely recognizes how self-incriminating this information is: she only needs to interject through the title and excerpt placement to help readers draw their own conclusions.
Vang does choose to let her own voice through at times, and most often her speaker is keening the terrible losses endured by the Hmong. In “Authorization of Depart Ravaged Homeland as Biomedical Sample,” Vang traces the journey of one group of samples, mourning the dead who were reduced to a string of numbers and letters:
only | as a vial of blood | were you registered
as urine did they label you : asylum
sample M-35-82 | victim “7”
...cargo of you | quaking inside
an ice chest (51)
The people that should have been offered refuge arrived to safety too late, “to be juried under a lens” instead of offered a home. The interspersal of found language—“sample M-35-82”—draws the reader back to the original sources of this poem. Vang does more than simply expose grievous wrongdoing. She connects readers back to the attack victims, shows how their stories, their personhoods, were reduced down to “cargo” for the sake of politics. Vang ends the poem with “an ice chest,” dropped to the next line to play on the dual meaning of ice chest—literally, a cooling unit that failed to protect samples, or figuratively, a coldhearted government that dehumanized the suffering of thousands of Hmong people.
Vang’s speaker goes on to lament in “Arriving as Lost:”
There’s no defense for how they will
There’s no acceptance for
Why you’ve been crammed alongside
Pets, placed haphazard to fend among
The crates. (53)
Here is yet another vivid example of the lack of gravity given to these crucial samples, which represent the pain of countless individuals. Rather than sending an escort to watch over the samples, the boxes have been thrown in with the pets to jostle around in the luggage section of a plane. And with the samples compromised, tests were inconclusive or deemed not worth running by American researchers. The double-edged blade of both Vang’s own poetic voice and the assembled first-hand texts present a strong, moving case that the Hmong were telling the truth and were ignored.
As with the real life events surrounding the yellow rain incident, at times it is difficult to understand the book’s contents, due to Vang’s intricate collage poems. In “Composition 5,” black lines diagonally bisect the pages, and text in all sizes and fonts—with inconsistent kerning and leading—shoots out from the center of the page. The material consists of quotes from American news sources in the 80s and 90s, reports from the Comptroller General to Congress, cables from the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok, a 2005 dissertation on the yellow rain incident, and more. The storm of voices tell several stories: that Meselson, a lead scientist working on the bee dropping theory, disregarded the testimonies of Hmong witnesses as “illiterate indigenous people,” that questions of chemical testing inhibited international relations between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, and that Meselson would go on to disavow the theory of yellow rain as bee feces. Vang presents these primary sources in a garbled and confusing pattern so that readers, too, will have to carefully sift through the comments. Vang is by no means an unbiased secondary source, and so, juxtaposing very different opinions about the yellow rain attacks returns some autonomy to the reader. It is up to us to read and decide which opinions to give credence to and which to disregard.
There are still more layers of violence to unpack in Yellow Rain—this is not just a story about biochemical weaponry used on innocent people and the subsequent cover up. It is also a history of how systemic racism rears its head, discrediting Indigenous wisdom in the face of Western imperialist behavior. In “Composition 3,” Vang’s speaker explains,
They made the Hmong appear as if we were confused, as if we couldn’t tell the
difference between what the earth gave and what man made, the difference between
shit and death. (109)
Vang also uses the words of white scientists against them, showing how they devalued the testimony of Hmong people. In “Composition 3’s” opening collage, it quotes that “none of the alleged attacks was witnessed by a western observer” and “the Hmong do not generally recognize honeybee feces for what they are” (103). These statements are damning portrayals of a racist bias toward only believing “western” witnesses, and they also infantilize the Hmong, claiming they had no awareness of their home surroundings. Vang includes them because it is essential to contextualize the erasure of the Hmong people’s suffering within a white supremacist world. A large part of why this tragedy could go unresolved, could be left out of history lessons, and completely unknown to many only forty years later is because the Hmong are a small Indigenous Asian population.
I'm sorry to admit here that Yellow Rain’s devastating history was completely new to me, indicating just how effective the cover-up has been. Being Asian myself, I seek out the stories of other Asian communities, yet this never crossed my path. I spent a few summers in college teaching English to refugee students, some of whom were Hmong. I had little knowledge of the background of my students, and unfortunately, most of the time, I looked up the general region my students hailed from and stopped there. As I read Yellow Rain, I spent a lot of time thinking about the Hmong students I walked by in hallways, wondering what stories the students and their parents carried.
Even before I read the book description, Yellow Rain’s cover caught my eye, with its bright yellow background, intersected with thick lines of black, red and orange, forming the shapes of the letters “Y, L, R.” Overlapping lines form a maze on the cover, one with numerous dead ends, as well as numerous exits. After reading the book, the cover seemed quite fitting, as the maze of truths and lies, cover-ups and inconsistencies left me overwhelmed and grieving a loss I hadn't known existed.
Yellow Rain, with its fragments of allegations, claims, and atrocities, flies in all directions, covering ample ground as it prods and overturns the nebulousness of the yellow rain attacks. Hiding behind the doubts and contradicting reports, the United Nations has never declared a definitive stance on what happened. In a timeline of events in “Composition 1,” the speaker recounts the circumstances of 1983-1986, relating that “the United Nations ...could not confirm nor deny whether anything happened to the Hmong. As if to say to us: we don’t really know if you died” (46). At first glance, this line is about the injustice of the situation, about mourning the failure of a system that didn't care to avenge the suffering caused. But more than that, Vang’s poetry provides a beacon of its own, because what the UN or the United States has to say about the Hmong and the yellow rain violence isn't what truly matters. What matters is that Vang is speaking out, past the hollow words of governments and corporations, to offer us a path through the maze. As the book closes, the speaker proclaims for the people listening,
It was never about finding out what actually happened to the Hmong.
Something happened in that jungle. Something still happening. The truth does not
offer itself in this life, but here a truth is surfacing. (175)
Genevieve Hartman is a Korean American poet based in upstate New York. She is the Director of Development & Publicity at BOA Editions, reads poetry for VIDA Review, and reviews for GASHER. Her writing has been published or is forthcoming in Stone Canoe, EcoTheo, Singapore Unbound, River Mouth Review, and others. Follow her on Instagram at @gena_hartman.