Like any good son, I pull my father out
of the water, drag him by his hair
through white sand, his knuckles carving a trail
the waves rush in to erase. Because the city
beyond the shore is no longer
where we left it. Because the bombed
cathedral is now a cathedral
of trees. I kneel beside him to see how far
I might sink. Do you know who I am,
Ba? But the answer never comes. The answer
is the bullet hole in his back, brimming
with seawater. He is so still I think
he could be anyone's father, found
the way a green bottle might appear
at a boy's feet containing a year
he has never touched. I touch
his ears. No use. I turn him
over. To face it. The cathedral
in his sea-black eyes. The face
not mine--but one I will wear
to kiss all my lovers good-night:
the way I seal my father's lips
with my own & begin
the faithful work of drowning.
A finger's worth of dark from daybreak, he steps
into a red dress. A flame caught
in a mirror the width of a coffin. Steel glinting
in the back of his throat. A flash, a white
how he dances. The bruise-blue wallpaper peeling
into hooks as he twirls, his horse
-head shadow thrown on the family
portraits, glass cracking beneath
its stain. He moves like any
other fracture, revealing the briefest doors. The dress
petaling off him like the skin
of an apple. As if their swords
inside him. This horse with its human
face. This belly full of blades
& brutes. As if dancing could stop the heart
of his murderer from beating
between his ribs. How easily a boy in a dress
the red of shut eyes
beneath the sound of his own
galloping. How a horse will run until it breaks
into weather-into wind. How like
the wind, they will see him. They will see him
when the city burns.
Aubade with Burning City
South Vietnam, April 29, 1975: Armed Forces Radio played Irving Berlin's "White Christmas" as a code to begin Operation Frequent Wind, the ultimate evacuation of American civilians and Vietnamese refugees by helicopter during the fall of Saigon.
Milkflower petals in the street
like pieces of a girl's dress.
May your days be merry and bright...
He fills a teacup with champagne, brings it to her lips.
Open, he says.
Outside, a soldier spits out
his cigarette as footsteps fill the square like stones
fallen from the sky. May
all your Christmases be white
as the traffic guard unstraps his holster.
His fingers running the hem
of her white dress. A single candle.
Their shadows: two wicks.
A military truck speeds through the intersection, children
shrieking inside. A bicycle hurled
through a store window. When the dust rises, a black dog
lies panting in the road. Its hind legs
crushed into the shine
of a white Christmas.
On the bed stand, a sprig of magnolia expands like a secret heard
for the first time.
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.
The song moving through the city like a widow.
A white... A white... I'm dreaming of a curtain of snow
falling from her shoulders.
Snow scraping against the window. Snow shredded
with gunfire. Red sky.
Snow on the tanks rolling over the city walls.
A helicopter lifting the living just
out of reach.
The city so white it is ready for ink.
The radio saying run run run.
Milkflower petals on a black dog
like pieces of a girl's dress.
May your days be merry and bright. She is saying
something neither of them can hear. The hotel rocks
beneath them. The bed a field of ice.
Don't worry, he says, as the first shell flashes
their faces, my brothers have won the war
The lights go out.
I'm dreaming. I'm dreaming...
to hear sleigh bells in the snow...
In the square below: a nun, on fire,
runs silently toward her god-
Open, he says.
-from Night Sky with Exit Wounds
Prompt: Check out this list of figures in Greek mythology. Scroll down the page and randomly select one of the characters. Write that name at the top of a piece of paper and then read up on them a bit. Now, as in Ocean Vuong's "Telemachus," compose a surreal, dream-like poem in which you mythologize a mother/father figure in relation to the figure you have chosen from the list. What similarities are there between your mother/father figure and this figure in Greek mythology? What differences are there? Where do their stories intersect/diverge?
BIO: Poet and essayist Ocean Vuong is the author of the best-selling, Night Sky with Exit Wounds, winner of the Whiting Award, finalist for the Kate Tufts Discovery Award and was a New York Times Top 10 Book of 2016. A Ruth Lilly fellow from the Poetry Foundation, he has received honors from the Lannan Foundation, the Civitella Ranieri Foundation, The Elizabeth George Foundation, The Academy of American Poets, and the Pushcart Prize.
Vuong's writings have been featured in The Atlantic, The Nation, New Republic, The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Village Voice, and American Poetry Review, which awarded him the Stanley Kunitz Prize for Younger Poets. Selected by Foreign Policy magazine as a 2016 100 Leading Global Thinker, alongside Hillary Clinton, Ban Ki-Moon and Warsan Shire, Ocean was also named by BuzzFeed Books as one of “32 Essential Asian American Writers” and has been featured on NPR’s “All Things Considered,” PBS NewsHour, Teen Vogue, VICE, The Fantastic Man and The New Yorker.
Born in Saigon, Vietnam, he immigrated to the US at the age of two as a child refugee. He lives in New York City.