Review: Ocean Vuong’s BURNINGS

Burnings by Ocean Vuong | Sibling Rivalry Press 2011 | $12.00

Ocean Vuong’s first chapbook of poetry, Burnings, is a searing elegy to a deceased motherland that continues to smolder in the memories of those who left her in the wake of war. Although Vuong is a member of the 1.5 generation (the children and infants of Vietnamese refugees with scant memories or no memories of that armed conflict) his writing boldly confronts, grapples with and reflects themes of personal and political dissolution and regeneration.

Do not say our names as this flame grows

from the edge of the photo, the women’s smiles

peeling into grimaces, the boy spreading slowly

into black smudge, filaments of fire

dissolving into wind. No, do not say our names.

Let us burn quietly into the lives

we never were.

[from “Burnings”]

What comes forth in the title poem is the shock of tangible, catastrophic loss. It gives you the feeling of being gradually burned down to a nub, leaving behind only a trail of stoic grief, and in order to get on in life and persevere you must transcend it.

An apt Mark Doty epigram divides Burnings into two sections, but the transformative medium of fire is the theme that runs throughout the chapbook. As I read Vuong’s poems, I imagined each one warping and crinkling in my hands, heating up my fingers, as if someone had lit a match at the corner of the page. The slow burn of Vuong’s verse and his juxtaposing and melding of life and death give off sparks in the dark that illuminate truths which one never truly forgets.

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Intro to Minh

To this day, I still remember reading Seattle poet Koon Woon’s first official book of poetry, The Truth In Rented Rooms (Kaya Press, 1998) back in Rochester, NY. As I read more of his writing it was like watching the smudgy white walls of my studio apartment turn into a kaleidoscope of possibilities. I could tell Woon’s writing came from a place of strength and hurt, truthfulness and sorrow. These were human qualities I had taken for granted all my life before I started writing poetry myself.

Woon’s writing had the wonderful ability of convincing me to peer deeper into the well of mystery and to search for my own meaning in life.  He writes in the poem “In Water Buffalo Time,”

When my little friends mocked me for my seriousness,
Our teacher, under the shade of the yung tree bursting with berries,
Told us Meng-Tse had dreamed he was a butterfly
Dreaming it was a man.
Without even knowing what a “yung tree” or who “Meng-Tse” was, I intuitively knew that as a poet of Asian descent I was on the threshold of a long literary tradition in this country I called home. I knew I had already missed much, but I soon realized that the curling waves of Asian American literature(s) populate a very large and deep body of experience, innovation and experimentation that only keeps on getting stronger.

The editors of the Lantern Review blog have asked me to review books of poetry, and I intend to employ my trusty reading skills and quirky powers of interpretation to the task of properly introducing poetic works by Asian American authors to You, the general reading audience. The kind of poetry that reels me in and makes me want to take another bite is one where the author simplifies the complex only to open me back up and engage my mind with the never-ending complexity of human experience and imagination.

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