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.
6 thoughts on “Vuong Song”
Oddly enough, I had this novel in my hands Saturday and passed it by (because I already had two books and not the zero I said I was adding to my stack at home. Now I wish I’d gotten it. I love novels by poets. They just can’t help but let some poetic language creep in.
You’ll get another shot at it, I’m sure!
Of course I will, because your review moves it to my Want to Read list. Thanks!
Of course I’m only on p. 21, but I feel confident with it!
Me, too. More books take a long time to pull you in than start wonderfully and fizzle.
Ken, thanks for not buying into the knee-jerk infatuation with transgression that drives the contemporary creative writing scene, the fad that sees genre-bending as a guarantee of bold originality. Your using the term “poetic” instead of “poetry” throughout these comments is both refreshing and clarifying. This is NOIT a collection of poems. It’s a collection of poetic prose pieces. There IS a difference. Thank you.