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Ocean Vuong


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
                                                        asterisk. Look
                                  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
                                  aren't sharpening
                     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. 
                                  She opens.
                                                       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
                                                         and tomorrow
                                  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.
                                                        She opens.


 -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.

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