ocean vuong: a knife on the tongue

by Jennifer Martelli      

    ~ Ocean Vuong will be one of the featured poets at this year’s Massachusetts Poetry Festival.

A small group of poets meets the fourth Tuesday of every month upstairs at the Salem Athenaeum. The Incessant Pipe Salon is a noisy bunch: side conversations, political speeches, mini-workshops, Skype. One night, in the background, Joey Gould played the New Yorker podcast (May 4, 2015) of Ocean Vuong (Night Sky with Exit Wounds, Copper Canyon Press, 2016) reading his own poem, “Someday I’ll Love Ocean Vuong.” One by one, we stopped talking until it was only his voice reading his words: “are you listening? the most beautiful part/of your body is wherever/your mother’s shadow falls.” Vuong’s voice rose and fell with each of the forty-two lines, the way the chest rises and falls; and each line reflected images that almost break a heart with their simplicity and their danger. When the poem ended, I didn’t ask “who was that?” I asked, “what was that?’ because the poem and his reading of it produced something physical inside.

    Vuong’s language is simple, most words are no more than two syllables.  The emotion is created by the juxtaposition of comfort and grief, safety and peril.

        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.

                        (“Someday I’ll Love Ocean Vuong”)

The bombs in Vietnam (where Vuong was born) illuminate many of his poems.  In “Aubade with Burning City,” a poem about the fall of Saigon, he writes: “In the square below: a nun, on fire, runs silently toward her god--.”  What I loved about this poem, with its narrative and historical elements, was Vuong’s attention to tiny details highlighted by the fires of war.  He sees not only a murdered police officer in a “pool of Coca-Cola,” but “a palm-sized photo of his father soaking/beside his left ear.”

    The fires of family and of violence, too, light up Vuong’s world. In “Deto(nation),” he writes:

        Now here is your father inside
        your lungs. Look how lighter

        the earth is--afterward.
        To even write the word father

        is to carve a portion of the day
        out of the bomb-bright page.

I think what is so stirring for me in Vuong’s work are his constant gestures of leaving the earth while being so tethered to the ground, to the physical:

        Then you can walk away-back into the fog

        -walled minefield, where the vein in your neck adores you
        to zero. You can walk away. You can be nothing.

        & still breathing. Believe me.  (“Tell Me Something Good”)

The body is a meaty thing, forever housing the soul (the heart, the breath, the father who lives inside your lungs).  In “Homewrecker,” even love is muscular, metallic:

        we danced: along in sleeping bodies, which is to say

        This is how we loved: a knife on the tongue turning
        into a tongue.

Ocean Vuong’s poems are magnificent, heartbreaking, whether I read them on the page or hear them.  It is no wonder that Vuong was awarded The Stanley Kunitz  Prize for Younger Poets in 2012, The Ruth Lilly/Sargent Rosenberg Fellowship in 2014, a Pushcart Prize that same year, and most recently, The Whiting Award. Vuong dares to write of “Gravity breaking/our kneecaps just to show us/the sky (“Eurydice”).” And I love his poetry for that. His poems embody his voice, or perhaps it’s Vuong’s voice that embraces the words and makes them poetry.  Either way, I’ll be at his reading at the Mass Poetry Festival at the end of the month.  I want to experience Ocean Vuong’s voice—a knife on the tongue turning--and see what happens when it presses against the walls, against my heart.

Jennifer Martelli’s chapbook, Apostrophe, was published in 2011.  Most recently, her poetry has appeared in Hermeneutic Chaos, Up the Staircase Quarterly, and Rogue Agent.  Her review essays have appeared in Glint Literary Journal, Drunken Boat, and Gravel.  She is a recipient of the Massachusetts Cultural Council Grant in Poetry and is an associate editor for The Compassion Project.