|Copper Canyon Press|
After several intense days at VONA and a long drive discussing many poets, my mind was crammed with poems. There were too many writers to read. Almost arriving at the theatre, Carlos asked, “Have you read Ocean Vuong?” Oh no, I thought, not another name to memorize!
|Ocean Vuong: Photo by Peter Bienkowski|
Carlos took out his phone and recited a poem titled, “Someday I’ll Love Ocean Vuong.” Because the poem was dense and I was jostling inside of a rocking car, I couldn’t grasp the entire poem at once. Some lines, however, sunk in and stayed: “The most beautiful part / of your body is wherever / your mother’s shadow falls.” It also contained weird lines that disturbed me: “Here’s a desk / with the gimp leg & a brick / to make it last.” The overall effect of the poem was so strange and beautiful at the same time that it upset me. Yes, that’s the right word: upset.
After complimenting the verses, the other four poets in the car changed the subject. I, however, faded away from their conversation, hunched over my phone and typed Ocean Vuong. The first poem that popped up was the poem “Toy Boat” on poetryfoundationg. org.
Upon reading it, a sensation of restlessness shook me again. Many things were causing this disruption. The subject matter. The sadness. The deep sense of loss resonating in the poem. I felt somewhat overwhelmed, but I was sure of one thing: Ocean Vuong is in love with language. Don’t get me wrong, I have read many great poets who also love language. Ocean, however, is different; it is as if he has stared into the face of language for so long that he has memorized her birthmarks.
After a week at VONA, I returned to Los Angeles, still bothered by this Ocean enigma. I opened my laptop and the next poem I read was “Aubade with Burning City.” Of course, the first thing I did was to think about the titles of famous paintings, such as “Still Life with Apples” by Paul Cécanne. The idea of casually coupling a “song” with a “burning city” has powerful political overtones (the poem is about the fall of Saigon). It also transforms our way of thinking about both painting and poetry, successfully juxtaposing a sound (something invisible) with a city in flames on the canvas of our imagination. This is another example of how Ocean makes us think about language differently. Suffice it to say, the title itself is a poem.
I don’t want to talk too much about “Aubade with Burning City”—in case you read it, I don’t want to ruin it for you. But I do want to mention one sentence. After reading it, I thought, I am never going to write that well. Obviously, the line is more powerful in context, but here it is:
In the square below: a nun, on fire,
runs silently toward her god—
First, the punctuation. He uses nontraditional punctuation to stop and slow down how we experience this heart-breaking scene. Technically, the colon should be a comma, but, like a good movie director, Ocean uses it like a command to order the nun when to appear. Following the nun, two commas, replaced before and after the words “on fire.” This punctuation slows her down, to give the reader time to experience the flames. The next thing he does is place the word “runs” directly underneath the word “nun.” The word “runs” are the legs of the nun. The word “runs” tells the nun the exact moment when she should start running. In addition, the words “nun” and “runs” are both audio and visual rhymes.
But the word that pierces my heart is the word “silently.” Again and again, English professors admonish students, “Don’t use adverbs. They are the leeches of the English language.” This is an example of how, in the hands of a master, an adverb can perform one of the highest functions of speech. The reason “silently” haunts me is that, although the nun is silent, the scene is not: while she runs, the skirt of her habit and the flames make the sounds of wavering and fanning in the air. Her silence brings this ghostly sound more poignantly to our ears. This is the eerie sound we hear while she runs silently “toward her god.” Again, what a beautiful way to say that she is going to die. Although we are outside the nun, we can see from her point of view. Is Ocean telling us that because of her great faith in God she can sustain this tragedy so silently? Or is the experience so horrible, so frightening that she has already entered a dimension where language no longer exists? I think both are true. I will, however, note that Ocean wrote “her god.” He didn’t write “toward God,” which would have ruined the effect. He wrote “god” with a lower-case “g,” as if to say that there is no God. The word “her” could also imply that the experience of “god” is only subjective. There is no way that he could end such an extraordinary sentence with an ordinary period. Like the scene itself, the end of the sentence must also be a surprise. He ends the line with a long em dash. The emdash is the terrible fate into which the nun crashes: death. The em dash is like the nun’s long path. She is never going to stop running.
In my short but intense obsession with him, the word “silently” has been, for me, the key to unlock Ocean’s strange power. In contrast with the rest of the sentence which is destructive (“on fire”), “silently” connotes the nun’s powerful acceptance and resignation to her terrible fate. There is a tension between “silently” and “on fire,” between what has traditionally been deemed feminine (quietness/silence) and what has traditionally been deemed masculine (destruction). Throughout all his poems, the two forces of masculinity and femininity swirl and dance around each other like two airy spirits. In the process, they solidify into a new strange third element that disturbs and enlightens us with its vulnerability. By creating new things, he forces us to see language (and by extension our lives) differently. His poems, new feminine-masculine hybrids, derail us from our everyday lives. It was this strangeness, this newness, that bothered me so much the first time I heard his poetry. I was uncomfortable because I had to see things from a different point of view. In this way, he accomplishes Ezra Pound’s long-standing, challenging edict: “Make it new.”
Like any good poetry fan, I googled Ocean. Like me, he is gay. Like me, he immigrated to the United States (him from Vietnam, I from Mexico). Like me, he had to learn English in the public school system. Like me, he was raised by a single, hard-working mother. Like me, he had a violent, alcoholic father.
To my delight, I discovered he had published essays which allowed me access to his poetic aesthetics and his way of thinking about life. To learn how, for him, poetry is like a fire escape, read the powerful essay, “The Weight of Our Living: On Hope, Fire Escapes, and Visible Desperation.” In “Beginnings: New York,” he describes how, for a time, he was homeless, living inside the new York subways, while trying to finish his college degree without telling his mother about his dire situation. What I like about his essays, published over several years, is that they allow me to analyze the growth of an artist. With the passage of time, his writing improves and improves. He is only in his 20’s.
Best of all, I learned that he published his first book-length poetry collection titled “Night Sky with Exit Wounds.” Again, what an incredible title. The book contains 35 poems and they are all good. My only complaint is that it’s too short. For purposes of laying out the book, three pages are blank on both sides, and when I came across them, I thought, “Fuck! Why are they blank? There should be poems printed on these pages. I feel cheated.” (After reading his work, you won’t blame me for being a tiny bit greedy.) Buy “Night Sky with Exit Wounds” today.
When I was 14, the word “Amadeus” fascinated me. The contemporaries of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart hated him because he was a genius. Jealous, they called him “Amadeus” (God loves) to emphasize their displeasure with both God and Mozart (i.e., God loved Mozart so much that He gave him more genius than to anyone else). Fortunately, not all contemporaries hate genius. For example, in one of his essays, T.S. Eliot notes how peers swooned over the fact that they were alive at the same time that the grand master William Butler Yeats was writing. For my part, I’m excited to see what, with further development, the genius of Ocean Vuong will accomplish in the future.
Jose Enrique Medina received his BA in English from Cornell University. When he is not writing for fun, he is playing with his chickens, bunnies and piglets on his farm. He is currently working on his first book, a collection of short stories.