Gazing at What Pleases

‘On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous’
Ocean Vuong (Tom Hines)

Sometimes I think that there are two kinds of great poets: those who embarrass easily and those who don’t seem to embarrass at all.

For the first type, think of Elizabeth Bishop: a poet whose oeuvre is small because the amount of excellent poetry anyone can write is small, and because excellence was the unrelenting standard to which she held everything she wrote. For the second type, think of Walt Whitman: a poet whose genius resided in his willingness to court the melodramatic and purplish, in his committed, principled shamelessness. The first kind of poet tends to be a perfectionist, an ironist, always on guard against the sentimental or gaudy; the second kind eschews the perfect for the gorgeous, embracing sentiment and, through the alchemy of art, sharing it.

Thirty-year-old poet Ocean Vuong is of the Whitmanian school. Indeed, one of the great things about Vuong’s 2016 Night Sky with Exit Wounds, the rare debut collection to win the T. S. Eliot Prize, was its refusal to be embarrassed. The book takes its shape from all the things Vuong refuses to find shameful: his status as an immigrant (he moved to the United States from Vietnam at the age of two and couldn’t speak English when he first attended school in Hartford); his class position (“Even now,” he writes of his mother, “the nail salon / will not leave her: isopropyl acetate, / ethyl acetate, chloride…”); above all else, his queerness. This queerness can be expressed matter of factly, as when the speaker relates an early sexual encounter: “he’s waiting with sticky palms & mint / on his breath a cheap haircut / & his sister’s levis / stench of piss rising from wet grass.” But more often it’s expressed ecstatically: “I press [my tongue] / to the navel’s familiar / whorl, molasses threads / descending toward / devotion. & there’s nothing / more holy than holding / a man’s heartbeat between your teeth.”

The critic William Logan has carped about Vuong’s “dithery, soft-focus” verse. Here, we might note the precious-seeming archaism of the ampersand, the panting alliteration (descending/devotion; holy/holding/heartbeat), the conflation of oral sex with religious devotion. It all seems a bit much. But it’s precisely the muchness that makes the book work; it’s the boldness—of conceit, of language, of music—that redeems the occasional moments of overcooked romanticism. Are there lines that I’d find hard to defend? Certainly. (Case in point: “Maybe the body is the only question an answer can’t extinguish.”) But even lines like this don’t bother me too much since they help create the conditions—a poetic universe of deep feeling and confident sincerity—that lead to other superb moments like this: “They say the sky is blue / but I know it’s black seen through too much distance.” Or this sonorous litany: “Say surrender. Say alabaster. Switchblade. / Honeysuckle. Goldenrod.” The Whitmanian poet is unashamed because he has seen the world and he has found it good. Vuong has, too.

 

Writing becomes a way for Little Dog to commune with his mother.

In his new book, a novel called On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, Vuong again proudly wears his earnestness on his sleeve. The book shares its title with a poem from Night Sky with Exit Wounds. The poem “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous” was deeply experimental, moving between traditionally lineated tercets, paragraphs of prose-poetry, and other forms and styles. It was also deeply emotional, charting the hungry vulnerability and transformative power of erotic love. The novel On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous similarly weds the experimental and the emotional, fracturing novelistic structure and making felt the violence and beauty of love in its many forms: maternal, filial, romantic, aesthetic.

The novel, which jumps around in time and place, uses an epistolary framework. A young Vietnamese-American poet named Little Dog is writing a book-length letter to his mother, Rose. In it, he narrates his life (which resembles Vuong’s own) and thinks through his inheritances: how Rose was shaped and deformed by her experience living amid war in 1960s Vietnam; Little Dog’s own childhood spent in Hartford, where drugs were ever-present and money hard to come by. There’s a catch, though: Rose is illiterate. Grammatically, Little Dog addresses his mother throughout, using the second person “you”; realistically, he knows his letter will never be received or understood. (Vuong has said that he got this structure from Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead.)

Writing becomes a way for Little Dog to commune with his mother. It is through language that he can link his own experiences (falling in love with a book for the first time in the third grade; falling in love with a boy named Trevor during high school; falling into the life of the professional writer) to hers. Through Little Dog’s letters, we learn of her time in Vietnam, surrounded by checkpoints and M-16s; of her move to Hartford; of her coming home every night with “the chemicals from the nail salon [rising] from your skin”; of her struggles with casual racism and persistent poverty. Writing memorializes the violence that both have experienced (American militarism for Rose; American hypermasculinity for the queer Little Dog), while at the same time preserving those countervailing experiences of love and hope: Rose’s care for Little Dog despite her own woundedness, and Little Dog’s first, exhilarating sexual encounters. Yet writing also marks the distance between mother and son. As Little Dog succinctly puts it, “I am writing to reach you—even if each word I put down is one word further from where you are.”

 

Give me more sincerity and beauty. More moreness, please.

Poets see the world in and through language, and so does Little Dog. When it rains in Vietnam, “the dirt around the woman’s bare feet is flecked with red-brown quotations”; when Little Dog massages his mother’s back, he sees “the small bones along your spine, a row of ellipses no silence translates.” (That last phrase illustrates a continued weakness from Vuong’s poetry: an occasional straining after profundity that just comes across as straining.) The scenes in which Trevor and Little Dog flirt, fall in love, and then fall apart exhibit a perfect fit between heightened emotion and heightened language.

Just as moving, and more surprising, is the delicacy with which Vuong, a romantic, writes about that least romantic of subjects: labor. During his high school summer breaks, Little Dog works on a local tobacco farm. (“Most people don’t realize tobacco can grow this far north—but put anything near water and it’ll green itself to the height of a small army.”) That’s where he first meets and falls in love with Trevor. It’s also where he and the other casual laborers work long, hard hours in the sun.

Little Dog, part of “the spear crew,” follows behind the cut team, who “chop down the stalks in quick slashing sweeps.… You could hear the water inside the stems as the steel broke open the membranes, the ground darkening as the plants bled out.” There’s violence here: the plants bleeding out, the workers slashing and cutting. But there’s also community, even beauty: “the work somehow sutured a fracture inside me. A work of unbreakable links and collaboration, each plant cut, picked, lifted, and carried from one container to another in such timely harmony that no stalk of tobacco, once taken from the soil, ever touches ground again.” Labor is alienated and undercompensated. (Little Dog and the other workers, undocumented migrants, are paid under the table.) But it’s also generative, even unitive: “I learned to speak to the men not with my tongue, which was useless, but with smiles, hand gestures, even silences, hesitations.” This kind of work relies upon, and produces, injustice. It also relies upon, and produces, solidarity.

When writing about his mother’s time at the nail salon, Little Dog similarly attends to the ravages of manual labor: “I’d come back with your glass of water and you’d already be snoring, your hands in your lap like two partially scaled fish.” But pain isn’t the only thing he registers. In one scene, a woman with a prosthetic leg comes into the salon and asks Rose to massage her leg—massage, that is, the air where her leg would have been. Rose’s professional meticulousness reads as a form of love: “You continue down to her invisible foot, rub its bony upper side before cupping the heel with your other hand, pinching along the Achilles’ tendon, then stretching the stiff cords along the ankle’s underside.” Nothing is neglected, everything is done with care—in Rose’s ministrations but also in Vuong/Little Dog’s writing.

This writerly care comes through in the novel’s many quiet moments of lyricism. When visiting family in Virginia, for instance, Little Dog writes, “The first colors of evening fall upon the wooden fence and everything ambers, as if we’re in a snowglobe filled with tea.” In a throwaway sentence, an older man “smokes the way one smokes after a funeral”—an entire life condensed into a single image.

But it’s the bolder passages, the sections that unabashedly talk about life’s gorgeousness and pain, that are the dominant notes. Summarizing the critic Elaine Scarry’s thoughts on beauty, Little Dog writes, “To gaze at what pleases…is itself replication—the image prolonged in the eye, making more of it.… And it was that very moreness that I wanted to prolong, to return to.” We have plenty of ironic writers, writers afraid to commit themselves or their writing lest they look ridiculous. Give me more sincerity and beauty. More moreness, please.

Anthony Domestico is Associate Professor of Literature at Purchase College, and a frequent contributor to Commonweal. His book Poetry and Theology in the Modernist Period is available from Johns Hopkins University Press.

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