Reflecting on Ocean Vuong

My favorite contemporary poet as of currently is Ocean Vuong. I remember going to Barnes & Noble with my younger sister and as she went off to the young adult racks I immediately ran to the lone bookshelf labeled poetry and started browsing. It felt like the shelves consisted solely of classics and a dozen copies of “Milk and Honey.” The only other book I saw on the rack was a thin book with a an old family photo and the words “Night Sky with Exit Wounds” obscuring the eyes of the people in the photo. Given the intriguing cover and the fact that the poet’s name was literally Ocean, I took it out, sat down, flipped it open, and started reading. After two poems I knew it was worth the $13.95 printed on the back. I took it home, and I read it all that night.

I find myself looking up to Ocean Vuong a lot as a poet now. He has such an amazing understanding of how to use the entire page with his form, and how to pace, and break up lines. He writes with vivid images that are strung together in such elegant non linear ways which leave a lasting impact on the reader. In his poem inspired by “Untitled (Blue, Green, & Brown): oil on canvas: Mark Rothko: 1952” he plays a little less with form, and really focuses in on creating an image-driven nonlinear poem.

The first line of the poem wastes no time and hits the reader directly in the chest with “The TV said the planes have hit the buildings.” He doesn’t explain the context or the stakes behind the piece. He just trusts the reader to understand and feel the weight of the words. He then shifts completely into the line “& I said Yes because you asked me to stay.” It changes the focus to a personal conflict of the speaker, and although the two lines make no real narrative sense with each other, they lay the groundwork for the emotion and distance the rest of the poem builds off of. The poem covers a conflict within the speaker as well as that in society as a whole, using beautiful metaphors of religion, and nature, and humanity until it links back to the beginning with the line “The TV kept saying The planes…”

This poem then turns and has an absolutely stunning ending of “& I stood waiting in the room/made from broken mockingbirds. Their wings throbbing/into four blurred walls. & you were there./You were the window.” These lines embody everything I love about Ocean Vuong as a poet. The way he crafts such an abstract image that the reader is still able to follow, and the impact of every last word is stunning. It’s so open, but it feels like a natural progression.

Any poem that does anything resembling this has a special place in my heart, and I strongly recommend that those who feel like these traits encapsulate their poems should submit to Levitate before our open submission period ends on February 28, because as much as I would fight for them to have a spot in this collection, it would take very little fighting. If you haven’t read “Night Sky with Exit Wounds,” go buy it. It’s incredible, and I hope it changes the way you look at poetry just like it did for me.

Jamie Lind, co-poetry team leader, is a Chicago-born poet who is proud of his new role in constructing a literary magazine. He looks forward to finding work that inspires him both as a reader and a writer.

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