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Vietnamese-American poet contemplates his personal ties to the war

In “Night Sky With Exit Wounds,” poet Ocean Vuong pays tribute to the oral tradition of his family and his personal connection to the Vietnam War.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan

    : Finally, the latest in our occasional series on poets and what inspires them.

    Tonight, Ocean Vuong, recently chosen for the prestigious Whiting Award. His new book, “Night Sky With Exit Wounds,” explores the legacy of the Vietnam War and the power of oral history.

  • Ocean Vuong, Author, “Night Sky With Exit Wounds”:

    Sometimes, people say, well, how does it feel to be the first poet? And I say, I’m not the first poet. I come from a long line of poets. They were not documented.

    And it’s interesting how poems are carried from one culture to another. In Vietnam, there’s much dependency on the body. One needs to have the body — in a way, the body is a book, that one needs the body to remember the poem, sing the poems and pass them along.

    My grandmother, she was a rice farmer. In a sense, all Vietnamese farmers were poets, because while they were working, they sang, and the songs helped the rhythm of the harvesting and the seeding of the fields.

    But, also, the daily news of life, and ultimately, when the war came, where the bombs were falling, information started to come into the rhyming couplets in the poems and the songs. And this is how information was passed.

    In the poem “Aubade with Burning City,” I took Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas,” the lyrics, and wove it through a scene about the collapse of Saigon.

    When my grandmother would tell me about the collapse of Saigon, she would say, “Saigon, this sounds very strange, but I remember it fell during the snow song.” And as a child listening to that, it was so surreal to me. That was the song that was used as a coded message for American personnel to evacuate.

    So, you can imagine the city falling apart during this beautiful, celebratory song.

    “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas. 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.”

    When my grandmother passed away in 2008, and I wanted to preserve that memory landscape on paper, I was faced with where to break her lines. And, of course, the oral tradition doesn’t offer a page. In a way, I was collaborating with this — with my grandmother beyond her life.

    When we immigrated to America, all she had were these songs and poems. My mother was also illiterate. She — her father is an American veteran. When we arrived in America, she went right into the nail salon to work, manual labor. And she made it her goal to teach me how to write.

    And the poem “The Gift” is very interesting because she only knew A, B, C, three letters. But she would have me write those letters anyway.

    “A, B, C, A, B, C, A — the pencil snaps, the B bursting its belly as dark dust blows through a blue-lined sky. Don’t move, she says, as she picks a wing bone of graphite from the yellow carcass, slides it back between my fingers.”

    We look at this wall, the interesting and tense relationship I have with the war is that, without it, I wouldn’t be here. And if I were to turn around and walk down this memorial and find my grandfather’s name, I wouldn’t be alive if his name was there.

    That is — the facts and the truths of what it means to be an American, is to be involved in this, and that perhaps — it’s seemingly so strange that a war in Vietnam and an American soldier would bring cause to a poet like me, a Vietnamese-American poet.

    “When they ask you where you’re from, tell them your name was fleshed from the toothless mouth of a war woman, that you were not born, but crawled headfirst into the hunger of dogs. My son, tell them the body is a blade that sharpens by cutting.”

    All of these people coming together out of violence, trying to do their best to make meaning out of their existence.

  • Hari Sreenivasan

    : You can read more of Ocean Vuong’s work, along with all of our poetry coverage, on our Web site. That’s at PBS.org/NewsHour/poetry.

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