For many of us, Thanksgiving means revisiting the familiar—going home to gather around friends and family in order to feast upon the foods that make this holiday so special. However, for those of us in the literary world, this time offers a chance to revisit our favorite works of fiction and poetry. As such, this week I chose to revisit Ocean Vuong’s first chapbook, Burnings. Published by Sibling Rivalry Press in 2010, Vuong’s chapbook is the precursor to his first full-length collection, Night Sky with Exit Wounds, published earlier this year by Copper Canyon Press.
Those of us at the minnesota review had the pleasure of listening to Vuong read from his first full-length collection, Night Sky with Exit Wounds, here at Virginia Tech in September as well as attend a craft talk given by the poet. In preparation for the reading, I decided to find any audio I could of Vuong reading, which lead me to a recording of Vuong reading his poem, “Someday I’ll Love Ocean Vuong,” found here. If you listen, you will notice Vuong’s distinctive reading style, in which each phrase is separated and read with a soft and drawn out voice. In person, this quality is even more intense—to the point that once you are drawn in, you are literally hanging on to his every word.
At the craft talk, when asked about writing, Vuong responded that, “writing is a life distilled.” That is to say you take a life and condense it by putting it on the page. However, it is also extremely important to consider the language you use—Vuong believes that writers should always have “the shoshin or white belt mindset,” in which any and every possibility with language is considered. When asked about the language that he employs in his own poetry, Vuong said that there is a “metaphorical junkyard where old types of language and phrases such as far out have gone now that they’re not used and displaced.” However, when writing, Vuong said that he “is still sifting through that junkyard to find language to use.” His poetry certainly demonstrates this belief. Spanning several years, from the speaker’s childhood to years as an early adult, Burnings is split into two sections that employ image and language in startling ways.
From a technical level, Vuong’s poems succeed in their experiments with language, image, and lyricism. Each poem is emotionally charged, using the lines breaks in a way that seems to mirror his reading style—making you cling to each phrase as you are drawn to the next one. For example, in the poem, “Kissing in Vietnamese,” the speaker states,
My grandmother kisses as if history
never ended, as if somewhere,
a body is still
However, each poem is surprising, taking turns that appear to take readers into unfamiliar territory. For example, in the poem, “The Touch,” when the speaker describes lying next to their mother at night, the poem concludes by stating,
…I only knew
the warmth spreading between us,
that the wings on her shoulders
were really my hands.
However, what I love about this turn at the end is that just as you start to veer somewhere new and unexpected, Vuong grounds you back in our world again.
In today’s political climate where diverse voices are still marginalized, I consider Vuong’s poems essential to helping us develop a sense of empathy. Whether he is describing the experience of being a refugee from Vietnam in the first section of the book or an eventual acceptance of homosexuality in the second half, Vuong’s work is important and demands to be read.
Specifically in the second half of the book, I liked the progression the speaker makes. The section starts with the poem, “Revelation,” which begins with the speaker stating,
Because we were boys,
I could only touch you in the dark.
Where we pretended the sins promised by our fathers
could not find it.
Thus, the speaker’s homosexuality at the beginning is something that has to be hidden, tucked away into the darkness, and ultimately lied about. However, throughout the second half, the speaker comes to terms with their sexuality culminating in “Ode to Masturbation,” when the speaker states,
Reach down. Let explosions be muted
by climaxes, the Holy Water
between your thighs flow
into rivulets of cleansing,
let it rinse the soil of drying blood.
As such, the speaker’s masturbation and manipulation of their body becomes a holy experience, capable of cleansing the speaker of sin. In turn, this causes the speaker at the end of the poem to seem to reject religion and claim that, “we are not holy, only beautiful.” This is important because it shows how the theme of the speaker’s sexuality goes from something hidden and shameful to something that is glorified and praised. The idea of this acceptance is something to be gained by reading Vuong’s chapbook. By the end of the book, it is evident that instead of marginalizing and ignoring distinct and diverse identities, voices, and narratives, we should be taking the time to listen to them, honor them, and finally, share them with the world.
Kevin West is a second year poetry MFA candidate at Virginia Tech.