A few months ago I began reading poems by Ocean Vuong, at first because his name, Ocean, enchanted me and then because his poems enchanted me. I have read the one below many times now, and each time, that opening line —Ocean, don’t be afraid– brings a lump to my throat. (How many times I have told myself Be brave, Alison, don’t live a fearful life.) The title, Someday I’ll Love Ocean Vuong, hits me in the same gut-punch way. This is one of those poems which I can’t sum up in a “What’s it about” kind of way, but because my heart responds to it in a below-the-surface way, I don’t need to. Months after I first discovered his work, I learned that Ocean Vuong thinks and writes in intricate English while communicating with his family in elementary Vietnamese, that he saved every penny he could from awards and publications for a down payment on a house for his family, and that his mother found it unfathomable that words –spun out from her son’s head and sent around the world in print and on youtube– could result in something tangible: a key to a house they could call their own. A poem borne of so many threads, so many years, so many tides and currents.
Someday I’ll Love Ocean Vuong
– Ocean Vuong
Ocean, don’t be afraid.
The end of the road is so far ahead
it is already behind us.
Your father is only your father
until one of you forgets. Like how the spine
won’t remember its wings
no matter how many times our knees
kiss the pavement. Ocean,
are you listening? The most beautiful part
of your body is wherever
your mother’s shadow falls.
Here’s the house with childhood
whittled down to a single red tripwire.
Don’t worry. Just call it horizon
& you’ll never reach it.
Here’s today. Jump. I promise it’s not
a lifeboat. Here’s the man
whose arms are wide enough to gather
your leaving. & here the moment,
just after the lights go out, when you can still see
the faint torch between his legs.
How you use it again & again
to find your own hands.
You asked for a second chance
& are given a mouth to empty into.
Don’t be afraid, the gunfire
is only the sound of people
trying to live a little longer. Ocean. Ocean,
get up. The most beautiful part of your body
is where it’s headed. & remember,
loneliness is still time spent
with the world. Here’s the room with everyone in it.
Your dead friends passing
through you like wind
through a wind chime. Here’s a desk
with the gimp leg & a brick
to make it last. Yes, here’s a room
so warm & blood-close,
I swear, you will wake—& mistake these walls
For a fascinating and beautiful interview with Ocean Vuong, please click here.