Learning to Read #10
There is a lot to like in this collection of poems – it got hugely positive reviews in the US when it came out last year, as you can see from my meta-poll of the years books, and the Cape Poetry edition in the UK has also been warmly received. It is intense, skillfully composed and, for the most part, authentic. Speaking personally, I have two minor “buts” – but these can come later.
You can forget, reading this, that it is a debut collection. The themes of destruction and love are brought out in ways that are sometimes abrupt and almost harsh, and sometimes subtle and understated. “Ode to Masturbation” for example, brings out some pretty overt and obvious references and then brings in a sideline of “how often these lines / resemble claw marks / of your bothers / being dragged / away from you” It is, and it isn’t what you’d expect, all at the same time. “Into the breach” is all wonder and holding back. “Threshold” opens with “In the body, where everything has a price / I was a beggar.” “Headfirst” – “Don’t you know? A mother’s love / neglects pride / the way fire / neglects the cries / of what it burns.” Powerful images in words that cross between violence and desire, and love and war. Everyday references of the domestic and mundane, in amongst striking moments of his cultural heritage, and the undercurrent of his sexuality and relationships.
“Daily Bread” is probably my favourite poem in this collection. I love the references back to how he writes, why he writes, in and amongst the talk of family and of the legacies of war. “Salt-spray, tsunami. I have / enough ink to give you the sea / but not the ships, but it’s my book / & I’ll say anything to stay inside / this skin. Sassafras. Douglas Fir.” “How could I have known, that by pressing / this pen to paper. I was touching us / back from extinction? That we were more / thank black ink on the bone” I really like the ideas, the imagination, the intensity in these words. Teasing us along and into our own thoughts; saying and not saying, and the last twenty percent of the image is in our own heads. That is how poetry should be, isn’t it?
I do have two buts – “but” number one is that sometimes the proxy war stories feel a little bit second hand and distant. Take “Always and Forever” for example. “The boy, pretending / to be asleep as his fathers clutch tightens. / The way the barrel, aimed at the sky, must tighten around a bullet / to make it speak.” Is he really speaking with his own voice here, or is a composite voice that has different elements of what he thinks he should be saying, either culturally or to suit his vision for what his audience wants. “But” number two is, I’m afraid, my long standing issue with irregular formatting. I can deal with poems that justify with alternate left, right patterns, and there are several of those in here, and I can deal with no punctuation or capital letters, but I struggle when the poem is in numbered footnotes with a page that is blank except for the footnote numbers. I can’t really explain it, I copied a page from “Seventh Circle of Earth” below. Why? What the heck is this all about? To paraphrase the Fast Show, “Oi, Ocean Vuong! No!!!!!!!!”
I just don’t get why you would want to do that or what it adds. But, still. Overall, this is a punchy, sharp little collection, with a lot to say for itself. Definitely a voice to listen out for.