Ocean Vuong emigrated to the U.S. from Viet Nam in 1990 at the age
of one and is currently an undergraduate English Major at Brooklyn
College. His work has been nominated for two Pushcart Prizes and
appear in the Kartika R, the North Central R, the Asian American
Poetry R, the Connecticut River R, and Word Riot among others. He
is also a volunteer writer and editor for the Vietnam Literature
Project in an aspiration to support and promote Vietnamese authors
and their work.
After the infamous 1968 photo of a Viet Cong guerilla
executed by South Vietnam's national police chief.
What hurts the most
is not how death
is made permanent
by the camera's flash,
the irony of sunlight
but the hand gripping the pistol
is a yellow hand,
and the face squinting
behind the barrel,
a yellow face.
Like all photographs
this one fails
to reveal the picture.
Like where the bullet
entered his skull,
the phantom of a rose
leapt into light, or how,
after smoke cleared,
from behind the fool
with blood on his cheek
and the dead dog by his feet,
a white man
was lighting a cigarette.
We have lied to the ones we love.
You were to be at Bible Study
and I, out to find the stars
I never saw. Instead,
we swallow each other's breaths
in a room rented by the hour.
Because no one knows us,
we are no one, and it is easy
to dive into sheets that reek
of cigarettes, the sweat
We fuck naked and nameless.
Two men with not enough bodies
to abandon, who must study the softness
of the inner thigh in darkness.
The bed shudders from our weight
while the truck driver in the next room,
his jeans tangled at the ankles,
places his ear to the wall
and listens for the woman
who was never there.
We finish and dress in silence,
say the awkward farewells
and walk our separate ways.
You clutching your father's Bible
and I the cracked telescope.
Our bodies growing smaller
from one another as we step back
into the lives of men
we no longer know.
for my grandmother, Le Thi Lan (1941-2008)
My eyes close into a night
thickened with ash and jasmine,
mortar blasts lighting distance
into shocks of dawn.
In a room lit with light
from another house,
my grandmother lies alone
beneath a baby-faced G.I..
What she knows as shame is forgotten
in the belly inside her belly.
Hunger neglects pride
the way fire neglects the cries
of what it burns.
Each soldier leaves her steeped
in what they cannot keep: liquor, salt
of lust, the pink dust
of shattered bodies.
There are men who carry dreams
over mountains, the dead
on their backs.
But only our mothers
can walk with the weight
of a second beating heart.
If you ask me where I'm from,
you must know the toothless smile
of a war-woman,
that a white man rages
in my veins, searching
for his name.
You must know I was born
because someone was starving.
The Masturbation of Men
After he beat my mother,
my father went to kneel in the bathroom
until we herd his muffled cries
bellow through the walls.
And so I learned: when a man
climaxes, it is the closest thing
A kind of forgetting - the face
twisted in its exorcism of animal,
the body shuddering
from the shock of release.
And if this is the remedy
to our masculine miasma, then forgive
the ones who sit in blackened booths,
confessing to screens lit
with impossible bodies, forgive
the priest who remembered
to remove the rosary,
forgive also the man waiting
in shadows, his hands itching
for the curves of a body
but decides to turn home, crawl
into cold sheets and reach down
into the warm exhale of his sex.
Because the only power we really have,
is the immediacy of pleasure: to close
weary eyes, rediscover the heartbeat,
and like stupid boys, flee towards
Back to Front.