Like Ocean Vuong, I caved
I first heard of Ocean Vuong two years ago. My cousin asked if I was familiar with this book, On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous, the first novel from a poet. It was being talked about a lot, she said. Vuong's previous book, a collection of poems titled Night Sky With Exit Wounds, had been published four years prior in 2016. Our mutual interest was piqued–the titles alone pulled us in–and we read the novel in tandem that October.
On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous is Vuong's exploration of complicated parent-child dynamics and the effects of trauma. The story's narrator, Little Dog, was raised in Connecticut by his mom and grandma, both of whom experienced the Vietnam War firsthand. Formatted as a letter from Little Dog to his mother, the story touches on youth, abuse, addiction, and queer love. The narrative is held so tenderly, acknowledged as precious; it's a retrospective embrace that is just as necessary as it is painful.
I was on the tail-end of a low period when I read the novel for the first time. The story, and Vuong himself by extension, invited me into a new form of nostalgia. There was no sugarcoating, no self-mythologizing. It was honest in its grit but maintained an air of acceptance. In reflecting I was able to find a deeper sense of compassion for my own mother; I was able to start reframing any resentment I'd been carrying with me and holding against her.
Vuong had pulled from his own life to write the novel. In 2019, the same year it was published, his mother died.
I had no way of knowing, when I read On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous in October 2020, that my dad would die less than a year later. Immediately following his death, I felt pulled to read Vuong again. My perspective was altered.
There was no romanticizing my relationship with my father. There was no changing it, now a thing of the past. All there was left to do was process.
Earlier this year, I bought copies of Night Sky With Exit Wounds for myself and my cousin. Until this point neither of us had gotten around to reading it, but my yearning for more of Vuong's writing had not waned.
This collection, with Vuong's intricate knowledge of stylistic choice as an instrument of impact, reads like a life preserved in amber. We're given strobing vignettes, glimpses of war and ruin, youth and yearning. He meditates on identity and worship. He introduces us to his first impressions of desire through descriptions of young lust and guilt and anonymity. There seems to be a practice, an exercise, a discipline in vulnerability. As a first published collection, Night Sky With Exit Wounds works as a powerful genesis.
Vuong helped me to stop forgetting. This collection, read nine months after my dad died, met me where I was–at the crux of appreciation, or at least respect for the facts. Relationships with our parents can't be simplified. It would be an injustice, a surrender of our own complexities. Life will have periods of oscillating between hurt and healing. What can we learn if we remember? How could we build anything without a foundation? This isn't myth-making. It's unabated honesty.
Time Is a Mother, Vuong's second poetry collection, was published in April. The shadow of his mother is kissed into the pages as he processes her death. He weaves portraits of loss describing the vacuum left in her wake where memories struggle to not be voided. He revisits memories of his father where there was always desire and distance. He writes to his partner and about his friends, pulling love closer to the chest.
There's a reckoning with the self after such loss. Other relationships are tugged by this new vacancy as life is reevaluated and repartitioned. Vuong kept pushing, healing.
Life and death have their reasons, and choice can be an element. Vuong holds our hand through it all. He illuminates. We will doubt, we will feel guilt, we will feel empty of substance, but what can we do when we hit the wall? It's about forgiving. We have to forgive ourselves for our own truths to accept the terms of life, to play it as it lays. We can forgive with abandon.
What this second collection asserts most is that loss of life is not a loss of love, of impact. We may be affected by external change, but the process of reframing and structuring and moving forward is an internal one. Vuong ruminates on everything that is left: the past, unchanging and irreducible, and the present as a stage being dressed for the future.
Following my dad's death, I didn't understand how I stayed on my feet while part of the world crumbled beneath me. All other pain in my life dulled as if mourning needed all of me. It wasn't as though I was born again through his dying–I was broken, but composition followed naturally and necessarily. I had to release old patterns of burnout and self-loathing. I had to release my guilt; I had to forgive myself. I had to forgive my dad, my mom, my siblings. The half-life of pain depends on how you love; this love is unconditional.
With brimming eyes I looked into those of Ocean Vuong, and I felt humbled. If anything, writing will be the only way I can reliably record the potency of the memories I have surrounding my father. Vuong was key to this realization.
An excerpt from "Not Even" in Time Is A Mother:
The man in the field in the red sweater, he was so still
he became, somehow, more true, like a knife wound in a
Like him, I caved.
I caved and decided it will be joy from now on. Then
Honey never spoils. Ocean Vuong, you will always be famous.
To learn more about Vuong and his writing visit his website at www.oceanvuong.com.