Updated: Oct 4, 2022
They say every snowflake is different— but the blizzard, it covers us all the same. A friend in Norway told me a story about a painter who went out during a storm, searching for the right shade of green, and never returned. ***
Excerpt from On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous - The Novel
Ocean Vuong is a prodigious talent whose poetic and written work reconciles beauty, conflict, and trauma in rhymic scatterings across every page.
Vuong's award-winning recognition of his work does little to relay the immense reach potential from the poet to the reader.
Simply put, Ocean Vuong's work is beautiful.
Each line lifts the reader's awareness and gently transports them... a melancholic journey fraught with bruised butterfly wings folding and unfolding.
(Vuong uses Monarch Butterflies as a metaphor in his novel.)
Moment to moment awakening- an exercise in cultivating beauty in remembered moments. Beauty, a choice. Choice, a freedom.
A raw and provoking quality surfaces in his work- Like tiny excruciating cuts on the soft tissue lining inside your nose.
Table of Contents
Tracing a Single Drop of Water- Reeling Toward the Earth
The poem- On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous belongs to the collection Night Sky with Exit Wounds. (Published April 5, 2016)
It is the 20th poem in this collection, and it shares the title with Vuong's debut novel.
Throughout the collection, Vuong captures small, random vignettes of life.
In a single, continuous, and enthralling narrative, he strings each episode- discordant of the last and unpredicting of the next.
Each episode is saturated in secret hints at a more profound, heavenly retelling- recall.
Like stringing shells together, littered on the ocean's shore.
Hold your ear to one, and you can hear the soft echo of forever.
The poem itself mirrors that random recounting of affairs. Each stanza is structured unto itself.
Each stanza doesn't follow from the last or anticipate the next. They are unique in their execution.
And yet, still fill in its telling, confident in its particular form.
However, they do stand alone. The connection between each is not apparent.
We remain uncertain as to the characters in each situation and the extent of the relationship with the narrator.
We never discover who you are.
Who the narrator is addressing in seemingly random, albeit chaotic, events.
Vuong has an innate ability to remain entirely authentic in transcribing his work.
This talent can only be born in constant sincerity and an honest engagement with the world.
This honesty speaks to a more profound display of conviction and courage. Courage is an essential requirement for crafting poetry.
Say a Prey, Surrender
Redemption is a consistent theme throughout Vuong's work.
Ocean illustrates redemption through starks, emotionally charged accounts.
The episodes reveal the best and worst of human nature.
Vuong strings these retellings like a delicate daisy chain riddled with spiders and cruel insects.
The beauty is stark and apparent. The malevolence is inevitable, natural, and small. Small in stature yet poignantly felt.
The hulking image of a brutish man crying draws far more from Vuong's readers than a back-handed slap and chainsawed exorcism, orgasm.
Vuong has described the novel of the same title as a love letter from a monster to a monster - his mother.
His late mother (- who died a few weeks after the novel was published) remained illiterate.
The true and single intent for this work was never to be realized.
The ebb and flow of that constant ache of a work unrealized, a life unrealized, will struggle to find resolve.
That struggle will ingrain itself into surrounding lives and create kaleidoscopic patterns of tragic beauty and acute misfortune.
Resolve is found in observing the secreted, shadowed elegance integral in all things, and then recorded in the written word.
Vuong uses say- and instructs the invisible subject to communicate.
He repeats say almost desperately. Desperation is enhanced with words like thrashing, falling, and mounting in your throat.
Deeply sensual, primal, and organic- commanding (communication), a dialogue with this invisible partner transcends basic limitation and finds god-space.
Dusk a blade of honey between our shadows draining.
Vuong uses honey and amber as metaphors for bodily secretion; in this, he's maintaining that the primary essence of self is beautiful and illuminating.
Humankind is not damned. Firstly and above all things we are gorgeous.
This single-sentence stanza is potent. It's powerful in its implication.
It's also interesting how daylight contrasts beauty in the previous stanza, yet dusk is compared to honey, dispelling their shadowed selves.
Why this stark contrast, is Vuong speaking to a personal shame in a sexual act?
When reading, light, illumination, and transcendence is the goal of his letter to his mother, is then the day's dawning light a blade? Switchblade. Honeysuckle. Surrender.
Rendering Shadows- The Active Presence of Remembering
The role of memory in Vuong's work is interesting in the fantastical capacity that has been attributed to it.
Events are cemented.
What's done is done and cannot be undone.
However, Vuong uses the medium of poetry to choose to focus on the beauty silver-clouded behind every episode.
There is a communal invitation to the way he remembers things.
Vuong allows his readers to alight to the clandestine beauty woven in all things when remembering your traumas, humiliation, and petite sufferings.
He renders these gorgeous shadows high to the heavens, a backdrop behind each episode, and gives life to them through reimagined narrative.
He ruthlessly and unapologetically heals all of his readers.
He does this through guidance and gentle hints at the possession of higher knowledge of the structure of spirit.
Higher knowledge of the beauteous quality abundant in the backdrop of all things.
Again, another stanza frequently repeats say. Say as a demand. A request. An imperative.
This invitation is in all likelihood for his mother.
To pick up his book and alight her herself to the message within.
This stanza is tragic and straightforward as it offers a journey to amends. To be done with. To eventually turn the chapter and close the book.
A journey for mother and son that can truly not be taken. Not in the quiet intimacy of the inner narrative of a reader.
In the shower, sweating under cold water, I scrubbed & scrubbed.
Words transcend actions. Actions negate words.
Again we find ourselves with a single-sentence stanza.
It alludes to the act of the previous single-sentenced stanza.
This is a masterful example of creating harmony within verse.
It's a dissociation. It doesn't relate to the previous two verses but the stanza before those.
Little time hopper.
It's also raw in its execution. It contrasts the action of sweating to the cold shower.
Again I find myself wondering about his shame.
It's a frank portrayal that could render his audience uncomfortable.
Again, provocative and so simple.
This shame, these feelings of discomfort find resolve in love.
Gorgeous, incredible love. Enough to lift, enough to transcend. Over and again.
As cruelty and brute force are inevitable forces of human experience, so too is the guarantee of love.
Some days, some days- illustrates the dreamlike quality of his musings.
Dreamlike also implies a healing and stress-free journey.
Reader, let me know what you think...
Does love transcend? Is love enough?
For Vuong, it's an exercise to glean the incredible momentous effort of love and relate that to his readers.
Do you feel his poem achieves this?
Vuong's language in this poem is simple.
And his deliberate use of straightforward language is important.
This implication of beauty remains constant and never strays from the poem.
The words themselves are not melodic and mellifluous.
However, stanza after stanza, a bountiful, incredible power pulses from line to line.
How does he do this? Personally, I think it's through ceaselessly searching for his childhood narrative and having the courage to confront it.
Thank you to all the Poetry Covers, and creator Adam Gary.
Thank you to Ken, who introduced me to this deeply moving poem and utterly brilliant artist- Ocean Vuong.
Then, as if breathing, the sea swelled beneath us. If you must know anything, know that the hardest task is to live only once. That a woman on a sinking ship becomes a life raft—no matter how soft her skin. While I slept, he burned his last violin to keep my feet warm. He lay beside me and placed a word on the nape of my neck, where it melted into a bead of whiskey. Gold rust down my back. We had been sailing for months. Salt in our sentences. We had been sailing—but the edge of the world was nowhere in sight. ***