Burnings: Poems – Ocean Vuong (Sibling Rivalry Press)

If you have a farm in
Vietnam

And a house in hell

Sell the farm

And go home

“Obscenities” by Michael Casey, circa 1972

Buy it direct from Sibling Rivalry Press or from our Amazon store – Burnings
 

This young man, Ocean Vuong—a 23 year old English major at
Brooklyn College, CUNY—was born in Saigon in 1988 and brought to America in
1990, where his schooling eventually revealed the barest details of the horror
that comes to mind whenever people of my generation refer to the Vietnam era. (My generation experienced
this era in living color, night after
night after night, blaring and beaming from our T.V. sets: it was a depiction
of the obscenity of war not scrubbed, not filtered, not censored by a Pentagon
policy that now, today, allows only selectively culled embeds to report a cleansed and inadequate depiction of the
essential atrocity of war.)  Indeed,
interviewed by Pank Magazine, Vuong noted: “When I was in high school, I would
always get excited to learn about the Vietnam War, to know my history. …And
every year I would find disappointment. Where we would spend an entire month on
the American Revolution, nearly an entire chapter on George Washington alone,
only a few pages would cover the entire ten-year war in Vietnam, sometimes with
only sparse paragraphs. …In the course of reeducating myself, I was baffled by
the lies the books told. …part of my aim as poet is to do what the media and
textbooks failed to: to explore the truths that we would rather forget, but
cannot afford to.”

To the poetry. There is serious stuff here in these forty
pages, rightly divided by, I assume, the editor into two sections with twelve
poems in each. There is a prefacing, however, with a poem intended, I believe,
to be Vuong’s primer of sorts on the intent of poetry itself.   

Ars Poetica – I
was reminded of a line in Whitman’s, Song
of Myself
, here: “Have you felt so proud to get at the meaning of poems?”
Vuong places two ships upon the sea that meet, where the sole occupants of both
place a plank across the hulls of the ships, and slowly step, one toward the
other, their fingers outstretched, yearning to touch. As I myself, at times,
find it difficult to “…get at the meaning of poems…” Vuong’s image represents,
for me, the inescapable intent of poetry, both from the poet’s and the reader’s
perspective…to connect, to touch.

The first twelve poems in this collection are almost
exclusively a reflection of what Vuong eventually discovered with regard to the
horror of the Vietnam war, and his own subsequent grieving for what that war
did to the Vietnamese people, primarily his family…known and unknown. 

Let me provide some snippets. (Apologies to Vuong for the
ellipses.)

BURNINGS begins
this first section. It is a burning of a photograph of Vuong sitting between
his mother and his aunt in a refugee camp in the Philippines.

 

Here, they are young
again… Do not believe

the light in their
eyes, the grins stretched

so wide, there is no
room for joy.

Do not say our names.
These faces

cannot belong to the
ruin they became.

…No, do not say our
names.

Let us burn quietly
into the lives

we never
were.

 

With THE PHOTO Vuong
resurrects the horrid image from 1968 of a Viet Cong guerilla being executed in
the street by South Vietnam’s national police chief. T.V. cameras as well as
A.P. captured the execution, and the images soon became witness to the raw
brutality of the war.

 

Like all photographs

this one fails

to reveal the picture.

…after smoke cleared,

from behind the fool

with blood on his
cheek

and the dead dog by
this feet,

 

a white man

was lighting a cigarette.

 

In SONG OF MY MOTHER
Vuong dedicates the words to the Vietnamese women who perished during the war.

 

Sing of the sisters
who held hands

while soldiers took
turns,

who fled by closing
their eyes,

only to find their
bodies

too cold to return to.

 

KISSING IN VIETNAMESE

 

When my grandmother
kisses…

she kisses as if to
breathe you inside her, nose pressed to cheek

so that your scent
pearls into drops of gold

inside her lungs…

 

THE MASTURBATION OF
MEN
begins with the image of Vuong’s father beating his mother, then
closing the bathroom door behind him to masturbate. …when a man climaxes, it is the closest thing to surrender…

 

TIME MAKER

 

When I was seven, I
believed everything

obeyed the laws of
clocks. That if I held still

their needles, my
father’s fist would stop

just before my
mother’s perfect nose

and the song on the
radio would play forever

the word—love

 

ARRIVAL BY FIRE is
preceded by a quote from Ilya Kaminsky: “What you call immigration, I call
suicide.”

 

…When we reached the
new world, we dissipated

into shadows,
apologized for our clumsy tongues

our far and archaic
gods. We changed our names

to John, Christian, or
Tina. How many mirrors

have we tried to prove
wrong?

 

The second group of poems reveals Vuong’s queer self, as
well as some other beautiful images quite removed from the starkly dark first
section.

 

In REVELATION
Vuong gives us an image of boys in a tentative discovery of the beauty of
themselves.

 

In the path of
trembling hands…I dreamed

the extraoridnary
things

light would do to the
parts I touched:

tuft of hair, silk of
foreskin, the wet pearl

emerging from its
sheath.

 

MOONLESS is, I
believe, a poem of self-redemption, a celebration of acceptance of oneself.

 

In a room illuminated

by a streak of semen…

The ceiling has
dissolved,

the stars forgot their
duties

as contellations and
fell

dusting our shoulders

with the swirl of
galaxies.

 

…Tonight, we become at
last

the tasters of light.

 

SELF-FELLATION AS
PRAYER 
I will leave for you to
discover on your own. My note to myself for this one: INTERESTING!

 

ACQUIRED IMMUNE
DEFICIENCY SYNDROME
is a lovely, yearning poem about caring for a sick
friend or lover, and wanting so desperately to merge with the one dying and go
back to beginnings, to go back

 

to the heartbeat’s
ascension, to the sound

of water overflowing,
two boys,

laughing in the
distance—the night

and all her unlit
stars

pouring from their
mouths.

 

GARDENING WITH THE SON
I WILL NEVER HAVE
is one of my favorites. Vuong begins the poem by asking
the question:

 

How do I explain

to the small boy
beside me,

the difference between
his skin

and the velvet shells
of tulips?

 

The beauty of the ensuing words, images are sentiently
engaging, masterfully constructed. As they plant the pods, there is the
observation that

 

…each pod contains instructions

to swoon to the tune
of zephyrs

and stretch the petals

that stroke our
breaths.

 

SONG ON THE SUBWAY recounts,
yes, a ride on the subway. A blind man enters the coach, and begins to play a
violin.

 

…I want nothing

but to put my fingers
inside his mouth,

let that prayer hum
through my veins.

I want to crawl into
the hole in his violin.

I want to sleep there

until my flesh

becomes
music. 

ODE TO MASTURBATION

Reach down, there is
music

in the body, play
yourself

like a lyre, insert
the finger

into sanctum, feel

the quivering of
crevices, skin

palpitating ripples as
if stretched over drumbeats.

Yes, the snippets provide some small example of this young
man’s extraordinary talent. The collection must be read in toto to glean the
full extent of what Vuong has gifted to us. I thank him for those gifts. And if
I tell him that as I read his work, the visages—all smiling, shaking their
heads in wonderment—of Lorca, Borges, Spender, Ginsberg, Whitman, passed
through my consciousness not as masters of the art to which Vuong surely
aspires, but as equals most pleased to welcome Vuong into their exclusive
coterie.   

Reviewed by George Seaton

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