YesYes Books, 2013
40pp. $12.00 (paperback)
Reviewed by Matt Sumpter
Ocean Vuong’s chapbook, NO, gives shape to loss and absence. The collection centers on the suicide of a friend, but NO quickly transcends its subject matter, huge as it is.
From the opening poem, titled “torso of air,” Vuong’s work evokes something that, like the dead, is both there and not, both haunting and irretrievable. In “migration,” the speaker meditates on a monarch migration that “still curves / around a mountain flattened / over two centuries ago.” And just as the monarchs’ path pays oblique homage to the mountain, so too do Vuong’s poems convey their grief through what they cannot bear to directly say. The speakers of these poems recall playing video games with the friend, putting a pillow over his face, driving on the interstate in a storm with him, even his chilling resolution, “i want to find a gun / and change myself,” yet the event itself—the suicide, the body, the immediate aftermath—exists in image and suggestion, a rumor whispered under the breath of each poem. Emily Dickinson, perhaps the greatest chthonic poet, wrote, “My business is Circumference,” and Vuong shows us the wisdom in those words.
Vuong’s circling also drives the imagination of these poems, propelling them into a surreal vividness. In “homewrecker,” Vuong writes, “In the museum of the heart / there are two headless people building a burning house.” The impossible characterizes many of these poems and lends them an urgent strangeness. In “ulysses(s),” the reader is trapped on a ship inside a glass bottle, only to have the bottle smashed. Here and throughout, Vuong lingers at the border between the real and the ineffable, an aesthetic that calls to mind James Merrill or Louise Glück.
And yet the book’s thematic interests are not its only pleasure. Vuong gives the reader a menagerie of variations on the free verse line—dropped lines, diptychs, poems approaching visual collage—but he most memorably employs the unpunctuated line one can’t help but associate with W.S. Merwin. But while Merwin’s lines often seek to complicate syntactically solid utterances, Vuong combines his lack of punctuation with enjambment to gives his poems a breathless, associative feeling. Take these lines from “aubade that won’t”:
The poem continues in this manner for four riveting pages, depicting a scene of love—even the memory of love—vanishing. Later, in “and then the blizzard,” Vuong writes of
In “The Dead,” James Joyce writes that Gabriel Conroy’s soul “had approached that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead. He was conscious of, but could not apprehend, their wayward and flickering existence.” In poems that are heartfelt and surprising, Ocean Vuong taps into this same spirit, giving us a splintered, forceful portrait of what death leaves us, and what we may make of it.