His Body is his Last Address – A Poem by Ocean Vuong from His Latest Book: TIME IS A MOTHER

Vietnamese American poet Ocean Vuong. Photo Credit: The Oxford Student

from Reasons for Staying

The October leaves coming down, as if called.

Morning fog through the wildrye beyond the train tracks.

A cigarette. A good sweater. On the sagging porch. While the family sleeps.

That I woke at all & the hawk up there thought nothing of its wings.

That I snuck onto the page while the guards were shitfaced on codeine.

That I read my books by the light of riotfire.

That my best words came farthest from myself & it’s awesome.

Ocean Vuong from TIME IS A MOTHER, Penguin Press, 2022

This excerpt from Ocean Vuong’s poem Reasons for Staying: what an ultimate wakeup call the poem is that begins with the excerpt above. And the poet,  the gay thirty-four-year-old Vietnamese American poet Ocean Vuong, is being celebrated, truly, as one of the important new voices in American poetry.

Ocean won the Narrative Poetry Prize in 2015, the year before his first full-length poetry collection, Night Sky with Exit Wounds was published to great acclaim and won the prestigous UK T. S. Eliot Prize and the American Whiting Award.. His follow-up book On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, an epistolary novel with many echoes from his own life, was cited as one of the top ten books of 2019 by The Washington Post, was a finalist for the 2020Pen/Faulkner Award for Fiction and was longlisted for the 2019 National Book Award for Fiction.

I heard Ocean read Reasons for Staying on a live on-line reading last week hosted by Georgia Tech and the co-host, Ukrainian American poet Ilya Kaminsky. I was so taken by it. By its courage and healing outreach. And its raw honesty. A poem, from Ocean’s recent 2022 poetry collection, that comes out of Ocean’s history of dislocation, addiction and that feels like a response to suicidal ideation. That suggestion in the title: Reasons for Staying.

Yes, this is a raw poem that includes a lot of potentially triggering references including a graphic sexual reference. This is why I begin with the excerpt before sharing below the full poem and what what could be triggering lines for some. But, and this a huge but for me, what a crying out for life, for living in this poem! What great poems do.  The poem vibrates with authenticity and emotional vulnerability. What a call, what a prayer for saying yes to life. And to someone, a reader, facing some of these challenges Ocean or his speaker has faced, what hope in this poem. That Ocean has survived his challenges. This encouragement to someone else that they too can survive!

Here is a quote that says so much about Reasons for Staying and Ocean’s overall poetics:

The language we use to communicate with one another is often one of distance and hyperbole. The risk is that we end up dismissing or, at worst, shunning the particularities of an idiosyncratic life…poetry creates a space where we don’t have to clear our throats, where we can be as strange and obsessed as we actually feel. And someone can read these thoughts and hopefully recognize their own strangeness and uniqueness as a human being. In this way, poetry is the side door to our inner selves, where we can see one another, without shame, more closely. Because maybe it’s these things that make us care for another: when we can recognize each other’s fears, vulnerabilities, joys, and histories.

 — Ocean Vuong from an interview in Split This Rock, Feb. 16th, 2016

This quote captures the keystone for poetry as far as I am concerned. We write to give voice, so often, to what others do not yet have a voice for.  And by doing this our readers know they are not alone. They can feel seen and heard in their challenge, their despair. Poetry therapy.

Here, below, is the complete version of Ocean’s poem, his side door to his very real inner self. Yes, the voice in this poem is also “the speaker: of the poem not just Ocean but there are times when a speaker’s voice seems so aligned to the author’s in a poem that it feels more honest to name the writer as the speaker. That way as the American poet and teacher Greg Orr says, the reader knows the writer has experienced, is experiencing, great challenges and has survived. The healing message of that.

Reasons for Staying

The October leaves coming down, as if called.

Morning fog through the wildrye beyond the train tracks.

A cigarette. A good sweater. On the sagging porch. While the family sleeps.

That I woke at all & the hawk up there thought nothing of its wings.

That I snuck onto the page while the guards were shitfaced on codeine.

That I read my books by the light of riotfire.

That my best words came farthest from myself & it’s awesome.

That you can blow a man & your voice speaks through his voice.

Like Jonah through the whale.

Because a blade of brown rye, multiplied by thousands, makes a purple field.

Because this mess I made I made with love.

Because they came into my life, these ghosts, like something poured.

Because crying, believe it or not, did wonders.

Because my uncle never killed himself—but simply died, on purpose.

Because I made a promise.

That the McDonald’s arch, glimpsed from the 2 am rehab window, was enough.

That mercy is small but the earth is smaller.

Summer rain hitting Peter’s bare shoulders.

The ptptptptptptpt of it.

Because I stopped apologizing into visibility.

Because this body is my last address.

Because right now, just before morning, when it’s blood-blue & the terror incumbent.

Because the sound of bike spokes heading home at dawn was unbearable.

Because the hills keep burning in California.

Through red smoke, singing. Through the singing, a way out.

Because only music rhymes with music.

The words I’ve yet to use: Timothy grass, Jeffrey pine,
celloing, cocksure, light-lusty, midnight-green, gentled,
water-thin, lord (as verb), russet, pewter, lobotomy.

 The night’s worth of dust on his upper lip.

Barnjoy on the cusp of winter.

The broken piano under a bridge in Windsor that sounds like footsteps when you play it.

The Sharpied sign outside the foreclosed house:
SEEKING CAT FRIEND. PLEASE KNOCK FOR KAYLA.

 The train whistle heard through an open window after a nightmare.

Sleeping in the back seat, leaving the town that broke me, whole.

Early snow falling from a clear, blushed sky.

As if called.

Ocean Vuong from TIME IS A MOTHER, Penguin Press, 2022

So much in this poem that calls me to yes, in spite of, in spite of! And that wonderful suggestion: as if called. Yes, it refers to the leaves but I think much more. And we hear it again at the poem’s end: as if called.  And we hear it in this line: That my best words came farthest from myself & it’s awesome. This understated suggestion of a beauty in nature coming to us, as if called, as if, I would say, as grace, as a blessing.

A list poem is so many ways. All these image rich reason for staying – alive. Even the images describing broken things. And the way he presents these striking images. All of them end-stopped double-spaced single lines except for one enjambed three-line stanza and a two-line stanza with a first line that feels end-stopped with its colon. How the double spacing and the end-stopped lines slow the poem way down. Each line a resonating hammer blow.

And the striking way Ocean with the overwhelming yes of this poem is not reluctant to bring in nos. Those noes, paradoxically, becoming a reason for staying. The mystery of this. These three lines:

Because right now, just before morning, when it’s blood-blue & the terror incumbent.

Because the sound of bike spokes heading home at dawn was unbearable.

Because the hills keep burning in California.

And for me, the brilliant way Ocean finds an affirmative way out after three lines. This line:

Through red smoke, singing. Through the singing, a way out.

If this isn’t in some way the most important line in the poem I don’t know what else could be. After the nos, this line which says in spite of the red smoke from the firs, in spite of, we sing. This singing a poet does, this naming. The horror and the joy. What the great late Canadian poet Patrick Lane says in one of his poems: but still we sing.

A signature of oOean’s writing is his complex and gorgeous metaphors. The lyric power inside his narratives. The lyric impulse is less obvious here but still very present especially since every line citing a reason for staying in the poem can be seen as a metaphor! I especially like the lyric resonances of these lines:

Because I stopped apologizing into visibility.

Because this body is my last address.

And this:

That I woke at all & the hawk up there thought nothing of its wings.

And this:

Sleeping in the back seat, leaving the town that broke me, whole.

 

2 Comments