Visiting Poets

Ocean Vuong

Ocean Vuong

Hailed by BuzzFeed Books as one of “32 Essential Asian American Writers,” Ocean Vuong is a biographer of violence, dislocation, and an immigrant, queer America that carries trauma from other lands, still breathing. Vuong’s debut collection, Night Sky with Exit Wounds (Copper Canyon, 2016), was named by the New York Timesas a Top 10 Book of 2016, and garnered a slew of honors: a Whiting Award, a Thom Gunn Award, the Lambda Literary Prize, finalist for Forward Prize for Best First Collection, and the Kate Tufts Discovery Award.

Vuong’s poems are whispered prayers of the body that seek a pathway out of trauma in intimacy. He was described by The New York Times as a poet who “captures specific moments in time with both photographic clarity and a sense of the evanescence of all earthly things,” whose work possesses “a tensile precision reminiscent of Emily Dickinson’s work, combined with a Gerard Manley Hopkins-like appreciation for the sound and rhythms of words. Vuong was born on a rice farm outside Saigon, and spent a year in a refugee camp in the Philippines before moving, at age two, to Hartford, CT. He was influenced by the Vietnamese oral poetic tradition he grew up with, and calls the ear “his first instrument,” as he internalized the stories and poems his family “carries… inside their bodies.” Reading his poems, writes Daniel Wenger of the New Yorker is like “watching a fish move” through the “currents of English with muscled intuition.”

The poems in Vuong’s blazing debut are searingly metaphysical in their treatment of time, the body, and identity, at once uncovering and resurfacing histories that are interwoven with the present. His Whiting Award citation notes how the poems “unflinchingly face the legacies of violence and cultural displacement but… also assume a position of wonder before the world.” Speaking to the way Vuong’s personal archaeological work with identity moves beyond one body and speaks to the seemingly private anxieties we share, Li-Young Lee describes the collection as “a gift. . .a perfume…crushed and rendered of his heart and soul.”

In addition to the Poetry Foundation’s Ruth Lilly Fellowship, Vuong is the recipient of fellowships from the Academy of American Poets, the Lannan Foundation, the Civitella Ranieri Foundation, the Elizabeth George Foundation. His poems have been featured in The Atlantic, The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Nation, New Republic, The Village Voice, and American Poetry Review, which awarded him the Stanley Kunitz Prize for Younger Poets. He has also published two chapbooks, Burnings (2010) and No (2013). He was also selected by Foreign Policy magazine as a one of 2016’s 100 Leading Global Thinkers, alongside Hillary Clinton, Ban Ki-Moon and Warsan Shire. Vuong holds an MFA from New York University, and in 2016 left New York for the Northampton area. This fall he became an Assistant Professor in the MFA Program at UMass Amherst.

Select Poems

After Frank O’Hara / After Roger Reeves

Ocean, don’t be afraid.
The end of the road is so far ahead
it is already behind us.
Don’t worry. Your father is only your father
until one of you forgets. Like how the spine
won’t remember its wings
no matter how many times our knees
kiss the pavement. Ocean,
are you listening? The most beautiful part
of your body is wherever
your mother’s shadow falls.
Here’s the house with childhood
whittled down to a single red tripwire.
Don’t worry. Just call it horizon
& you’ll never reach it.
Here’s today. Jump. I promise it’s not
a lifeboat. Here’s the man
whose arms are wide enough to gather
your leaving. & here the moment,
just after the lights go out, when you can still see
the faint torch between his legs.
How you use it again & again
to find your own hands.
You asked for a second chance
& are given a mouth to empty into.
Don’t be afraid, the gunfire
is only the sound of people
trying to live a little longer. Ocean. Ocean,
get up. The most beautiful part of your body
is where it’s headed. & remember,
loneliness is still time spent
with the world. Here’s
the room with everyone in it.
Your dead friends passing
through you like wind
through a wind chime. Here’s a desk
with the gimp leg & a brick
to make it last. Yes, here’s a room
so warm & blood-close,
I swear, you will wake—
& mistake these walls
for skin.

From NIGHT SKY WITH EXIT WOUNDS (Copper Canyon Press, 2016)

you ride your bike to the park bruised
with 9pm the maples draped with plastic bags
shredded from days the cornfield
freshly razed & you’ve lied
about where you’re going you’re supposed
to be out with a woman you can’t find
a name for but he’s waiting
in the baseball field behind the dugout
flecked with newports torn condoms
he’s waiting with sticky palms & mint
on his breath a cheap haircut
& his sister’s levis
stench of piss rising from wet grass
it’s june after all & you’re young
until september he looks different
from his picture but it doesn’t matter
because you kissed your mother
on the cheek before coming
this far because the fly’s dark slit is enough
to speak through the zipper a thin scream
where you plant your mouth
to hear the sound of birds
hitting water snap of elastic
waistbands four hands quickening
into dozens: a swarm of want you wear
like a bridal veil but you don’t
deserve it: the boy
& his loneliness the boy who finds you
beautiful only because you’re not
a mirror because you don’t have
enough faces to abandon you’ve come
this far to be no one & it’s june
until morning you’re young until a pop song
plays in a dead kid’s room water spilling in
from every corner of summer & you want
to tell him it’s okay that the night is also a grave
we climb out of but he’s already fixing
his collar the cornfield a cruelty steaming
with manure you smear your neck with
lipstick you dress with shaky hands
you say thank you thank you thank you
because you haven’t learned the purpose
of forgive me because that’s what you say
when a stranger steps out of summer
& offers you another hour to live.

From NIGHT SKY WITH EXIT WOUNDS (Copper Canyon Press, 2016)

after Newtown, CT

I don’t know the name of the white mare
swaying in early light, her mane tinged blue

with rain, but my mouth has found
the warmest vein beneath

her jaw—and so what
if my bones were hammered

into the shape of a man’s
regret. I’m only here to increase

the silence, despite music. And it’s hard
to pray with just one word

in the chamber—but I try. Like you,
I try, willing as the hand that holds me.

Like you, I thought I heard the thunder
of a world coming to its end.

It was only the sound of hooves
running nowhere.

First published by the Paris-American, 2013

Poetry Center Reading

Spring 2018