Born in 1988 in Saigon, Vietnam, Ocean Vuong is currently an undergraduate English Major at Brooklyn College, CUNY. His poems have received an Academy of American Poets Prize, the Beatrice Dubin Rose Award, the Connecticut Poetry Society’s Al Savard Award, as well as two Pushcart Prize nominations. His work appear in Word Riot, the Kartika Review, Lantern Review, SOFTBLOW, Asia Literary Review, and PANK among others. He enjoys practicing Zen Meditation and lives in Brooklyn with an 84 year old lady who he nurses in lieu of paying rent. Visit his blog at www.oceanvuong.blogspot.com
Arrival by Fire
Wooden teacups, steam swirled into the blue
then gray of morning. There was no one there to drink.
Before dawn blurred the edges of the sky,
when darkness made fools of limbs, we followed
the lantern’s golden eye, blinking from across the shore.
The river sliced our legs at the waist. Water
could not keep our secrets. When a croc’s eyes lit
like coals in the dark, my mother’s hand
clasped my mouth. The scent of sweat and garlic
would infuse my dreams for years. I had to touch
to believe my father was shaking. But there
is something different about reptiles.
Unlike humans, they do not eat when full.
But to disappear one must be swallowed
and so, we crawled into the bowels of a boat.
When we drifted to where sky and sea vanished
into a black wall, someone began to sing
a childhood song, and someone else begged him
to stop. The air began to tremble
as a hundred prayers hummed through my skin.
And where a fragment of moon fell through the hull,
a blue river of piss and vomit streamed
across the deck—washing away the fallen tears.
When there was too much silence, we would place
a hand on the closest chest, feel for drumbeats
then drift into dreams of chrysanthemums
flickering in the youth we’ve never known.
When we reached the new world, we dissipated
into shadows, apologized for our clumsy tongues,
our far and archaic gods. We changed our names
to John, Julie, Edward, or Susan. How many mirrors
have we tried to prove wrong? Who were we
when burning houses dimmed with distance,
and we watched our fathers hurl their hearts
into oceans where the salt sizzled in their wounds?
Now, on nights like this, when sleep sounds too much
like the sea, when the bed stretches into a ship
we cannot abandon, all we have are these stories, resurrected
like ghosts over steam of tea. Listen. Someone is trying
to croon that old song but the voice cracks over words
like Mother, Home. Nicolas, comrade, brother, whatever
your name, touch here—my hand, and remember: we were drifters,
we were orphans, but mostly, we were heat—steam
If You Are a Refugee
There will be nights when you wake
to touch the photo, your fingers
fading the faces you cannot name.
They are phantoms of your own,
whose eyes have watched the precession
of waving hands
diminish into distance.
There will be moments, between
a lover’s kiss, when you remember
the taste of blood,
and the limits to the answers
one mouth can hold.
When you sweat, you will sweat the oil
that has stained the city
of which you only know
from what is lost.
You will return to that city,
beg the woman whose hair
has grayed to scalp to tell you
your true name. You will stare
into her turbid eyes and ask
of the crescent in your mother’s smile.
And when you dream, you will revisit
the body in the forest, say
it is not your brother’s. You will see again
the naked man crouched
by the charred house, licking ash
from his fingers to taste the bodies
he can no longer hold.
If you are a refugee, you will come to praise
the thickness of walls, the warmth
that clings to cotton
the cricket’s song
in a night virgin to death.
But before you leave
what is gone forever,
go back. Go back and gather that boy
you left behind. The boy who stood
at the edge of a field
where your father once prayed
with a pistol in his mouth.