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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Poetry in History: Engaging the Legacy of the Vietnam War

In celebration of APIA Heritage Month, we’ll be running a special Poetry in History series once a week in lieu of our Friday prompts. For each post, we’ll highlight an important period in Asian American history and conclude with a few ideas that we hope will provoke you to respond. This is the final post in the series, and will feature the legacy of the Vietnam War.

A girl runs screaming down the highway, thick clouds of smoke billowing on the horizon. Burned flesh, bare feet, a haze of napalm: though Nick Ut’s (Associated Press, 1972) iconic image of Phan Thi Kim Phuc running from the smoldering remains of her village was shot almost forty years ago, it remains firmly lodged in the American visual and cultural memory.

The Vietnam War — or, as it is known in Vietnam, the “American War” — began in 1955 and “ended” in 1975 with the fall of Saigon, though its legacy has continued to enact violence of numerous forms on the bodies and minds of individuals and communities into the twenty-first century. War veterans marked by post-traumatic stress, victims of unexploded bombs living on the agrarian hillsides of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, urban communities of Southeast Asian refugees settled in the United States post-1975 — the list goes on. We’ve all seen the photos, but how much do we really know about the United States’ involvement in Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia? A Cold War conflict which led to the displacement of millions, over the course of its twenty-year duration, millions of Lao and Vietnamese lives were lost, in addition to those of approximately 60,000 US military personnel. Continue reading “Poetry in History: Engaging the Legacy of the Vietnam War”