A Vietnamese American poet, Ocean Vương’s phenomenal achievement of winning the Forward prize, Whiting award, and the Thom Gunn award, including his recent accomplishment TS Eliot prize from his work Night Sky with Exit Wounds, has brought tremendous praise and attention from local and global audiences. He composes his collection of poems by stringing along heavy symbolic imagery of color, the body, nature, and violence to connect and convey the themes of family, love, memory, suffering, and war. Looking closely at the poems, he challenges his writing style by the use of enjambments, fragmentation, spacing, and dashes, which draws similar references to two important writers, Emily Dickinson’s writing as well as Robert Hayden’s, leaving the reader a sense of nostalgia and melancholy in its efforts to confront the stream of conscious and vulnerability of the self and cultural identity.
In his reflection, Vương recalls on the memories of his father and family orchestrating an effect on the anxiety and trauma explored from his childhood in the poems “Someday I’ll Love Ocean Vuong”, “Threshold”, “Telemachus”, and “Daily Bread”. As the speaker, he sees his father through a confusing guise that reflects back as a source of shame and hurt. Symbols like rain and weapons inflicting bullet holes have this physical element of understanding the means of suffering that the speaker has had with the kind of relationship he has with his father.
On the other hand, Vương encourages a sense of hope in questioning his desire to rebuild his relationship with his father and family by being self-aware of his heritage and cultural identity. The symbolism of his hands and ink challenge his eagerness to provide a sense of closure and dignity of Vietnamese culture. Additionally, signs of assimilation haunt the speaker when he references to “stay inside this skin” and “how could I have known, that by pressing this pen and paper, I was touching us back from extinction,” which demonstrates his fear of forgetting his culture and identity.
Colors instill the emotions of the speaker’s ability
to cope and understand what is being dealt in front of him. The color scheme has a spectrum of Photo by Tom Hines meaning presiding in what is light and dark or good and bad. Colors like red, blue, and black identify the negative weight that the speaker carries or expresses, where nature’s elements like rain and ocean waves convey the challenges of change and movement through something. And darkness and shadows refer to the color black that hinder feeling lost and emptiness, opening up to the speaker’s vulnerability and anxiety.
Through Ocean Vương’s ability to piece together memories of decay and trauma, the poems relinquish a kind of self-discovery of an individual’s life and his struggles. Vuong overcomes his fears and regret using his muse of writing that are paired with symbols of hands, ink, and tongue creating a voice filled with fire and hope in representing his Vietnamese American identity.
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Rachel Egoian - Pleasant Hill, CA
Originally from the Bay Area and a recent graduate from University of California, Santa Cruz in Literature and Education, Rachel has a profound interest in Asian American literature and communities. Coming from a mixed ethnic background as an Armenian, Irish and Filipina, she values the importance of culture and self-identity. Through the foundations of literary criticism, she encourages and stresses the need for diversity in literature.