Greif Hidden in the Margins
My Father's "Norton Introduction to Literature," Third Edition (1981) : An analysis
Hai-Dang Phan's poem, My Father's "Norton Introduction to Literature," Third Edition (1981), travels into his father's past world that had become long forgotten. The speaker writes about his Vietnamese father, who went to college to get a job upon coming to America. Through imagery, tone, and diction, Phan paints the picture of a loving father with a disconnect from his father then versus the speaker's life now.
Phan gives some insight into his father's mind by providing the reader excerpts of his father's annotations in his copy of the third edition of "Norton Introduction to Literature." His father's native language is Vietnamese, leading to some of the annotations being translations of English to Vietnamese to understand better. These translations are not practical words for the type of employment he was working towards, but gaining knowledge about the culture he is now living in. Phan starts the poem with "Certain words give him trouble: cannibals, puzzles, sob, bosom, martyr, deteriorate, shake, astonishes, vexed, ode ... " (Lines 1-2). None of these words possess positive or happy connotations, playing into the tone of the poem. The diction used all contribute to the depressing and nostalgic tone of a life that is left behind. Phan could have possibly told the reader about different words in the annotations considering it would have been a large book. However, Phan chose these annotations to share in the poem.
With that quote as the introduction, the reader knows that the poem is not full of joy but reflects his father's past through the scribbled annotations in a literature textbook. Annotations are typically a reflection of thought while reading. Unless the professor assigned annotations, these translations and ideas were for Phan's father only. His father's annotations reflect the intimacy of reading his father's notes. Phan gives the reader a peek into a former Navy officer's mind as he moves to a new country and deals with grief. The imagery can present the reader with the duality of the speaker's life versus his father's life and how that directly caused it. The reader is experiencing this through the speaker's view. The speaker is sharing the remnants of a challenging time in his father's life by reading through his father's old copy of a Literature textbook.
The speaker notes some background on the family, "1981 was the same year we vượt biển and came to America, where my father took Intro Lit ("for fun"), Comp Sci ("for job")" (Lines 20-21). "Vượt biển" means "crossed the border" in Vietnamese. His father did not get to choose a field he would be interested in but instead what he knew would help earn him a stable job, as most people do. However, it gives the reader and the speaker insight into the thought process of taking the Literature class. Phan's father is the epitome of the immigrant story. He moved to a new country to have a better life and learned a new language and a strange new culture while finding a career to support his family.
The reader never hears directly from Phan's father, but only the speaker's view of his father's notes, but the reader still gets a decent depiction of the father. Phan characterizes his father through little bits of imagery and notes he left in the book's margins. Phan tells us his father's favorite hi-liter is "artic blue" (Line 12) and that his handwriting was small and slanted (Line 11). The characterization coupled with the imagery creates a well-known intimate version of Phan's father. He becomes someone fleshed out and not just a random man mentioned in a poem. He becomes someone that is relatable to the reader or feels they might know.
Phan touches on the grief his father faced as he read through Reading Ransom's "Bells for John Whiteside's Daughter:
a poem about a "young girl's death," as my father notes,
how could he not have been "vexed at her brown study /
Lying so primly propped," since he never properly observed/
(I realize this just now) his own daughter's wake.
Lấy làm ngạc nhiên về is what it means to be astonished. (Lines 21-25)
Phan included a poem within a poem to keep his father's annotation accurate for the reader, but it also reflects how Phan's father dealt with his grief of losing his first child. Phan's father uses the book and this new language to process what he is feeling, but he can play off words already written on a page. This passage also sets the tone to sad and depressing through the mentions of his daughter's death. With words such as "vexed" and "astonished," the reader is privy to the father's realization of his mourning.
The poem is nostalgic and sobering, causing Phan to realize what his father had to go through for the sake of his family. His father's annotations present a bit of the past and childhood and reflect the aspects of his life he was grappling with. The context of Phan's life presented on page twelve of the anthology gives more meaning and heartbreak to the poem. His father's past is directly related to Phan, but as a child, Phan did not have the same version of life in his memory as his father. As Phan came from an immigrant family, he knows his parents did a lot to provide the life he had, but the annotations in his father's book directly link to his father's life then.
The most vital link to his father's life is in the very last stanza. The brings the reader back to the father's real-life outside of his thoughts and annotations of a textbook.
Then between pp. 896-97, opened to Stevens' "Sunday Morning,"
I pick out a newspaper clipping, small as a stamp, an old listing
from the 404-Employment Opps State of Minnesota, and read:
For current job opportunities dial (612) 297-3180. Answered 24 hrs.
When I dial, the automated female voice on the other end
tells me I have reached a non-working number. (Lines 43-48)
This physical piece of paper was something other than his father's reflections, giving Phan a chance to connect to his father's past and the man his father used to be. However, as the speaker dials the number, it is no longer in use. Severing the tie he has to his father's past. The description of the job clipping is detailed and presents the disconnect between the speaker and his father. The number is no longer in service, keeping the speaker from connecting with his father. It is bittersweet as he had enough hope even to dial the number in the first place.
Hai-Dang Phan gives the reader a peek into his father's Literature textbook, and with that, a peek into his father's thoughts and reflections as an immigrant trying to provide for his family. Phan does this by presenting concrete examples from his father's textbook, providing an intimate connection with his father only to sever it in the last stanza with a phone line no longer in service. These annotations paint a picture of his father using imagery, tone, and diction. Phan picked which examples to share with and what diction to use in the process of opening up his father and his childhood to the speaker.
Phan, Hai-Dang. "My Father's "Norton Introduction to Literature," Third Edition (1981)" The Norton Introduction to Literature: Portable 13th Edition, edited y Kelly J Maas, Norton, 2020, pp. 10-12
About the author
Hello! I am one semester away from graduating with my English BA. I work as an informal STEM Educator and Writing Tutor. I like to write and get my thoughts out in my essays and short stories. Stay tuned :)