Pushcart 2014: Ocean Vuong, “Self-Portrait With Exit Wounds” (Poetry) from Assaracus, October 2012

Instead, let it be the echo to every prayer
drowned out by rain, cripple the air

like a name flung inside a sinking boat,
let it shatter the bark on the nearest kapok

and through it, beyond the jungle’s lucent haze,
the rot and shine of a city trying to forget

the bones beneath its sidewalks….

I like so much about this poem (available online), I hardly know where to start. I suspect it’s part of, or at least inspirationally linked to, Vuong’s second chapbook, titled NO (from YesYes Books – is that not a perfect match of book and publisher?), which thematically revolves around the suicide of a friend at age 18. Vuong was born in Vietnam (in 1988), and, yes, there are clear echoes of the war – the war I grew up watching on the nightly news. The war that’s – still – a lot more personal for a great many people, for a great many reasons.

Vuong’s Monkey Bicycle interview includes his view of form:

Besides being a vehicle for the poem’s movement, I see form as an also an extension of the poem’s content, a space where tensions can be investigated even further. The way the poem moves through space, its enjambment or end-stopped line breaks, its utterances and stutters, all work in tangent with the poem’s conceit.

I tried to keep that use of form – particularly enjambment, which he uses so effectively thoughout this poem – in mind as I read.

For instance, look how the poem starts out – “Instead,”… It starts in the middle of a thought. Instead of what? Throughout there’s the constant phrase opening, “let it…”: let it be, let it be, shatter, [go] past, brush, whisper, sing, enter, crack, soar, go on. I’m not sure what “it” is – a soul, a dream, a hope, a memory, the self-portait, the self that was denied in fact but not in poetry – but it’s imbued with power to touch everyone.

The enjambment Vuong mentions plays a spectacular role here. Just in that first excerpt: “the rot and shine of a city trying to forget/the bones beneath its sidewalks…” It’s a very different sentence, with and without that second phrase; it’s like a one-two punch. I wonder if that’s part of what “it” is, what the city – what we all – are trying to, but can not and should not, forget.

Other particularly beautiful instances: “a triumph/no one recalls”, “an epic/of blank pages”, “a kiss we’ve forgotten how to give/one another”. It’s nearly impossible to quote this poem since every line leads into every other line (as things lead one to another and connect us all) so I encourage (urge, beg) you to read it online.

The imagery is likewise stunning –the moon as ” the last wafer God refused him”, ” the sky only the dead look up to”, “Wonder Bread and mayonnaise raised/to cracked lips as testament to a triumph/no one recalls”, and, of course, war imagery, both direct (fire, death, blond grandfather beside the Army jeep) and indirect:

enter the cold supermarket
where a Hapa woman wants to shout

Father! at every white man possessing
her nose,…

The poem closes with a devastating scene, and I wonder if that scene, that act, that sound, might be the “it”.

Before it was anthologized in Pushcart, the poem appeared in Assaracus with the notation, “Củ Chi, Viet Nam”; that notation does not appear in the Pushcart publication. It’s too bad, because Củ Chi is a neighborhood of Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Saigon, and is known for its underground network of tunnels constructed by revolutionaries trying to fend off, first the French, then the Americans. It’s a good deal grimmer than it sounds. Tours available. Welcome to history, the war everyone want to forget, in this time when we’ve already moved on to the next war(s) everyone’s already working on forgetting, the next generation of poets, already forged.

I liked this poem so much, I did something I never do: I ordered Vuong’s collection NO. I’m intrigued by the theme, charmed by his readings on video, tantalized by his use of Emily’s feathered thing in “and then the blizzard” and what I hear is his use of William Carlos Williams, and awed by his use of language in general. I think it’s something I need to read.

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2 responses to “Pushcart 2014: Ocean Vuong, “Self-Portrait With Exit Wounds” (Poetry) from Assaracus, October 2012

  1. Pingback: Pushcart 2014: The End | A Just Recompense

  2. Pingback: Poetry MOOC (no, not that one, a new one) | A Just Recompense

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