For Vietnamese-American poet, pain is his muse

NORTH ADAMS — Five years ago, he was giving readings in Brooklyn — Zachary Finch heard of them through a friend in the city and listened, awe-struck, to poems like "Aubade with Burning City."

Ocean Vuong imagines South Vietnam on the day in April 1975 when Armed Forces Radio played "White Christmas" as a signal to begin evacuation before the fall of Saigon.

He wove a Christmas carol through chaos, tanks and shards of glass, a nun on fire.

The treetops glisten and children listen, the chief of police

facedown in a pool of Coca-Cola.

A palm-sized photo of his father soaking

beside his left ear.

"It's a deeply American story," Finch said.

Vuong was born in Saigon, though he has no childhood memories of it. He came to the U.S. as a toddler, grew up in Hartford, Conn., and worked his way through Brooklyn College. And then his poems hit the country like Aaron Burr's dueling pistol.

On Thursday night, he read his poetry at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts.

Finch, an associate professor of English and creative writing at MCLA, invited Vuong to become part of MCLA's Visiting Writers series this spring.

"He's such a big name," Finch said. He would hardly have expected Vuong to accept, but Vuong now lives in Northampton, as an assistant professor in the master of fine arts program for poets and writers at UMass-Amherst, and he came over the ridge to share his work.

He has been earning national attention for years now. Finch found Vuong's poems in journals — The Atlantic, Harper's, The Nation, New Republic, The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Village Voice and American Poetry Review. He followed and read them, where he could.

Then, in 2016, as Vuong was working on his MFA at New York University, he published his first book, "Night Sky with Exit Wounds," with Copper Canyon Press, and it went off like fireworks. A gay Vietnamese-American immigrant was writing in the voice of Jackie Kennedy at the moment of the assassination of her husband, President John F. Kennedy, and making it his own.

In that moment, Finch said, Vuong was writing "the destruction of ideals and love for a country that is killing you. He's more in touch with what's American, the inherent idealism and the inherent violence."

Vuong's poems move fluidly in point of view, from a man or a woman, a doe or a myth, his grandmother or Eurydice on the lip of the underworld.

His book hit a powerful note. It became a New York Times Top 10 Book and won the T.S. Eliot Prize, the Whiting Award, the Thom Gunn Award and the Forward Prize for Best First Collection.

And it has given Finch a chance to sit with the poems and absorb them.

"They continue to open up to you on a second, fourth, fifth reading," he said.

He is teaching them, and his students are responding to the intensity of the work. Vuong is writing out of deeply rooted pain in his family and in his history. His grandfather was a white American soldier in the Vietnam war, and his grandmother a village woman in the country. His mother left Vietnam with Ocean when he was an infant, and they lived for a year in a refugee camp before they reached the states.

And Vuong's father haunts the book. Present or absent, he reappears over and again with physical and possibly sexual menace. In nightmare-like scenes, Vuong pulls him out of the water, endures his hands, visits him in prison.

Poems are not direct autobiography, Finch said, but he finds honesty and courage in these scenes as Vuong recognizes intense fear. A poem can transform pain into creation — fear can become something powerful a writer can own, navigate and work through, maybe not control, but survive.

In Vuong's images of tension and isolation, Finch feels "the precariousness of life, and the diligence and arduous work in growing up in the projects, to a mother who couldn't speak English."

Vuong was 11 before he learned to read English fluently. He was growing up cut off in a way from both Vietnam and America. And he was growing up queer in a country where two men can be burned alive in their house in Texas for loving each other.

He writes about them, Michael Humphrey and Clayton Capshaw, in "Seventh Circle of Earth," a poem he composes wholly in footnotes — lines compressed at the foot of the page under a constellation of numbers in open space.

"Footnotes are supposed to describe the body of the text," Finch said, "but here there is no body."

The numbers float in the air, like the images of fragments that repeat in Vuong's poems — stars, snow, petals, flakes of ash or bits of bread from a bombed-out bakery.

The poems themselves piece together fragments, Finch said. They connect images like a memory or a dream, balancing between disorder and a need to make some kind of whole.

Vuong plays with forms and invents his own — a letter, a prose poem, couplets, stanzas — and he can speak with space as well as with words. Line breaks can change the meaning of a sentence. "In Into the Breach," each step, each breath moves from loss to love and from going to staying.

I want to leave

no one behind.

To keep

& be kept.

The way a field turns

its secrets

into peonies.


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