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12.13.2010

Book Review: Burnings

Burnings
by Ocean Vuong
9780578070599


It's no secret I stalk Ocean Vuong. It's because I envy him: demographically, he's like me: he's my age (born in 1988), he's Vietnamese, he's queer, yet he's so talented the words "mind orgasm" is the first thought I have after reading his stuff. When you read my stuff...well you can't read my stuff because I'm not good enough to get published...yet.

I don't write poetry anymore (editors told me to quit it), but I wrote one for/about him:

"To A Beautiful Poet"

You are the poet
that takes my spots
in literary magazines
and I want to kill you

and your beautiful language
because I chose the wrong major 
and never learned how to
write, or else how to read Whitman,

who I read only once
because I felt sorry for the guy,
you know, for being dead, but
then I figured I would've wanted him gone

anyway. So now there's the problem of you.


Now compare this anyone of the poems collected in Vuong's debut chapbook, Burnings and you would be jealous too. Collected here are 25 of Vuong's poems, some of which have already been published in literary journals such as Cha, PANK, and Ganymeade. Yet to assume this is just collected poetry is wrong. What Vuong has put together is a chapbook with coherent themes and imagery which, when read together, works to inform one another, adding up to a greater whole.

In part, Vuong's collection is about the convergence of different spheres and the conflict and excitement that results in such clashes of country, memory, history, and bodies. The first poem, "Ars Poetica," a preface to the book, hints to this convergence:

"When two ships emerge
from a wall of fog,
the sails lit with sheets of fire,
there will be a traveler on each deck
with the same face,
watching flames reflect
in the other's eyes"

As the book continues, the image of flames and burning is further explored as a metaphor for both pain and pleasure. In Vuong's poetry, the flames of memory are painful ("Let us burn quietly into the lives/we never were") and inextinguishable ("My grandmother kisses as if history never ended, as if somewhere/a body is still/falling apart."). Vuong (and his narrators) is at once a subject of history as well as a witness to it. He not only feels the burnings, he sees it (as in "Kissing in Vietnamese," "My Mother Remembers Her Mother," and "The Photo").

But to say that all burnings are bad is not Vuong's point. There's pleasure too. Mostly these deal with the pleasures of human heat (in "More Than Sex") or imprints of it (in "Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome"). Yet unlike those of pain, experiences of pleasure are fleeting or used as moments rather than historic situations: "Even now, as the body trembles/from pleasure of its making/somewhere, a plane is pregnant with death."

Vuong's poetic world is a world of pain: the pain of lives interrupted (in "Burnings"), the pain of never being able to come back ("Returning to the City of My Birth"), the pain of pleasure that cannot possibly last. But reading these poems--these wise, sometimes sad, sometimes sensual poems--one can see that pain can perhaps be the most beautiful thing of the human experience: not in a masochistic way, but because it's universal, something that one must acquire to be recognizably human: there simply is no other option. This is perhaps best articulated in the last poem "Seeing It As It Is," a bittersweet moment where a blind girl gains her eyesight and sees a burning building: "Mommy," she says, "you were right. This world/is beautiful."

In Ocean Vuong's poetic vision, the world is beautiful with all its tears and fires. Burnings is a major yet compact achievement in this poet's career.

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