Sunday, June 05, 2011

Natal Drama in Ocean Vuong's "Burnings"

Ocean Vuong's poems are quieter on the page than his dramatic reading style may suggest, and the poems benefit from their quiet inwardness. Burnings is the first collection of this Brooklyn College undergraduate, and already it showcases a significant lyrical talent. 

The book is divided into two sections. The first consists of poems about Vietnam, and Vuong's flight, with his family, to the United States. The second section takes for its subject gay love. The two sections have the same number of poems (12) but they are not equal in quality. The first section is superior. It shows a remarkable sensitivity to the plight of women, and finds the images and structures to express that empathy. 

The poem "The Touch" is emblematic of the section. The child sleeps with the mother on a hardwood floor, "bones cushioned/ with cardboard," and feels the mother shaking with crying. He wraps his arms around her waist, "the way a man does," but knows that the action, parsed as "a boy reaching out// and into the shell of a husband," is "not right." The illicit touch here is also inadequate. Despite the "warmth spreading" between them, the poem concludes that the "wings" on the mother's shoulders are only a boy's "hands." At the same time, however, putting a hand on a shaking shoulder is still a gesture of comfort. The poem captures the complex emotions of that touch in delicate and flexible couplets.

Eros becomes its own theme in the second section. Here, the romantic strain in Vuong's poems betrays it. "Moonless" is a rather simple celebration of sex. Lines like "the stars forgot their duties/ as constellations and fell,/ dusting our shoulders/ with the swirl of galaxies" are sentimental and grandiose. "In Defense of Poverty" romanticizes being poor; it wanders along a "trail of blood" to curl in front of "the oven's mouth," the images incidental rather than essential to the poem. Other poems reach for easy metaphors, comparing the anus to a sanctum and the body to a lyre. The last poem forces the recognition of beauty in terror. A young girl who has just received sight describes the planes hitting the Twin Towers as "beautiful." I cannot believe that any child--any one--would say that.

More believable, more moving, is the man-child who hears to his surprise a lullaby from the old country in "Saigon, Again," my favorite poem of the first section, and of the book. The song comes from a woman hanging rags on a balcony, and "weaves through the gray sheet/ forming her silhouette." It ties the ragged, darkened pieces of the past together for a moment. The speaker wants to sing with the woman to see her shadow "freeze" but what comes out of his mouth is "impossibly small." The poem finds an unforgettable image to represent the pain of separation, from mother, home and self. It is this natal drama that Vuong tells with delicate maturity.

1 comment:

Squid Kid said...

Ocean Vuong's book seem really interesting. I am going to get this. =P