Let’s talk about Ocean Vuong.
I first learned of Mr. Vuong at a poetry reading held at the University of Maryland–the Writer’s Here & Now series, specifically. Mr. Vuong was the featured poet and took the stage as an underwhelming presence. Quiet of voice, small of stature, yet Mr. Vuong’s poetry dealt me such a blow that when I left the event, I was breathless. I felt as though my chest had been cracked open by his powerful, lyrical poetry.
Mr. Vuong invites you into his world and you go, expecting an easy ride. But even here, on the “Threshold”, he is beside you, saying in his soft, soft voice:
In the body, where everything has a price,
I was a beggar. On my knees,
I watched, through the keyhole, not
The man showering, but the rain
falling through him…
In his latest work, “Night Sky with Exit Wounds”, Mr. Vuong wrestles with heavy issues. His familial history: “An American soldier fucked a Vietnamese farmgirl. Thus my mother exists. / Thus I exist. Thus no bombs = no family = no me. / Yikes.” (“Notebook Fragments”). Language barriers: “She doesn’t know what comes after. / So we begin again: / a b c a b c a b c” (“The Gift”). Sexuality: “To love another / man–is to leave / no one behind / to forgive me.” (“Into the Breach”).
I don’t want to spoil the whole work for you, though I would happily share every single poem if I could. I’ll end by mentioning one of my favorites, one of the most moving and heart-wrenching,”Seventh Circle of Earth”, about Texan couple Michael Humphrey and Clayton Capshaw, who were murdered in their homes. The poem appears as numbers leading to footnotes, which contain the meat of the poem.
But Mr. Vuong’s experimental formatting is never better than right here: Tilt your head to the side, and suddenly you’re looking at a constellation, an American tragedy of two lovers placed in the sky. A better fit for our modern times, perhaps, than some distant Greek myth.
I highly recommend that you check out Mr. Vuong’s work. I, for one, can’t wait to see what he does next.