Ocean Vuong

2 posts

Vuong Song

This week I picked up Ocean Vuong’s new book, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. It’s listed as “a novel” on the cover, but you know how genre goes these days. I can say with some confidence that it is not straight-up poetry like Night Sky with Exit Wounds, but I’d peg it more memoir than novel. Call me traditional.

The conceit is a series of letters from a young Vietnamese man to his mother, who cannot read. Proceeding chronologically, it starts when the letter-writer is a young boy in the familiar (to me) city of Hartford. (And how neat to see Franklin Avenue appear on its pages!)

Novel, memoir, hybrid, there’s no denying this is prose. But it is poetic prose, so if you’re hankering for a book of poetry, you should have no problem diving into an ocean of this kind.

For example, here is a paragraph taken from p. 12 in the text:

You once told me that the human eye is god’s loneliest creation. How so much of the world passes through the pupil and still it holds nothing. The eye, alone in its socket, doesn’t even know there’s another one, just like it, an inch away, just as hungry, as empty. Opening the front door to the firs snowfall of my life, you whispered, “Look.”

If you’re thinking these lovely lines of prose could easily be rearranged into a short stanza of poetry, you’re thinking like me. Whoever thinks of an eye as something god cares about, much less as his “loneliest creation,” is thinking in a novel way. No, wait. A poetic way.

And it’s almost aphoristic when Vuong writes “the world passes through the pupil and still it holds nothing.” Antithetical wisdom, that.

Then the bit about the other eye, unaware of the first, “just as hungry, as empty.” Nice. And finally, in a concrete example of all this poetic abstraction, his mother opens the door to the first snowfall so his young and hungry eyes can fill their emptiness with wonder.

Two pages later, the end of this chapter features a one-line, one-word paragraph—the word “Look.”

We may be briefly gorgeous here on Earth, but our prose can be gorgeous much, much longer. But don’t take my word for it. Read for yourself.

Going to a Poetry Reading in the Witch City

mass poetry

OK, I’ll admit it. Not only have I never been to a poetry reading, I have never even considered it. The very idea of it is rife with clichés, for one thing. You know, some hippie-type who forgot time wearing an Existentialist, black turtleneck and beret while muttering navel-gazing notions into a malfunctioning mic.

Whoo-we! Sounds like fun!

Seriously, though, I wondered about the listening challenges as an audience member, too. I like to read as I hear, and poetry readings are one-trick ponies where you listen and make do with only one of your senses. No following the bouncing ball. No sing-along-with-Mitch screen behind the poet, showing each line as it comes up. Just me and my two ears. On our own like grown-up eustacian tubes.

But I’m told that I will have to do readings myself now. Me. A guy who speaks for a living but is afraid of speaking before groups.

Impossible, you say? Hardly. I know plenty of experienced teachers like myself who have no problem performing for students (on an Academy-Award-winning scale, too) but pale at the very thought of addressing a group of adults. (Perhaps it would help, then, to consider any group of adults as overgrown children?)

In any event, with my wife by my side, I will be attending the Massachusetts Poetry Festival in Salem tonight where I will hear not one, not two, but THREE poets read. They are Jennifer Beasley, Martha Collins, and Ocean Vuong. Three styles, three approaches, three mentors. Surely I will gain SOMEthing from the experience. I even own Vuong’s latest book, Night Sky with Exit Wounds (meaning I can get it signed either before or after the reading). No doubt I will also have an opportunity to buy Beasley’s or Collins’ work.

With this initiation, the thinking is, I will be able to go boldly where many poets (especially the hams) have gone before: to a reading where I will have to be the sage on stage reading poems from my own book.

But first things first–attending this first.