“On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous” by Ocean Vuong

I wrote my brother a postcard. It was a Futurama postcard, came in a dvd we bought of one of the movies they made. “Bender’s Big Score” maybe. On the postcard I wrote, “Futurama is more important than poetry. So what? Wanna fight about it? That’s a Family Guy reference. This moment in cultural appreciation brought to you by me.”

The joke, poor and underdeveloped as it may be, is that I had written a poem about how a cartoon was more important than poetry. Again, not exactly a knee slapper, but I am alone in my house and so is he and so I figured writing something was better than nothing and that’s what I wrote so I sent it. I don’t know if it’s true, or even if I believe it. In regards to what is important I am agnostic. I recognize, for instance, the possibility that nothing is important at all. That particular proposition seems to have the most evidence, to be honest. 

At any rate, I do like poetry. I am not versed in it, har har, but I like some of them. Pablo Neruda, for example, wrote a lovely book of poems called “Odes to Common Things”. Its actual title is something like “Odas a Cosas Corriente”. I’m not sure because the book is at my brother’s house, coincidentally, and the power is out so I have no wifi and can’t look it up. 

Oh, it just came back on. Weird. The Spanish version is called “Odas elementales”, so I wasn’t even close. 

I mostly like poetry when it appears in prose though. I like the poetic arrangement of words in a prosaic context, is a more obtuse way of saying that. Being basically ignorant of what poetry actually is I find it all over the place. The first chapter of “The Phantom Tollbooth”, for example. Douglas Adams does it all the time, in describing the particular sensation of Thursday, or pontificating on the allure of digital watches. 

Philosophy is related too. When Calvino uses whatshisname to discuss the deduction of the nature of the universe from the properties of an ocean’s wave, what is that but philosophy? What is that but poetry? They are the same. Very distinct, of course, actually. But, you know, they do both make pretty with words and ideas. 

So, I read this book. That’s a lie. I’m reading this book. It’s very good, and I try to make notes about a book I want to review while I read it but as I sit down to take notes, I find myself writing the review. It’s good actually, because I won’t spoil the ending. It’s by a poet, Ocean Vuong. That’s a solid handle. Vuong means ‘king’ in Vietnamese so translingually it reads as Ocean King. Hard to beat! It’s called “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous”. It is not a book of poetry, but it has a lot of poetry in it. According to me. I am nobody.

It’s about a boy and his mom and that’s it. Dad is nobody. Grandad is nobody. The protagonist has a step-grandad, maybe, something like that, a USAer who married a Vietnamese sex trafficker during the war who was already pregnant with someone else’s kid, whatever title that earns you. “Tough life” could be talking about a half dozen people there!

So, he tells his story. It’s a letter to his mom. He made it to the states. Mom lived through horrific occurrences during the war, the kind of thing we all know happened, but none of us believe it. So, she beats him, remember Ma? She’s all messed up! Grandma went senile but has her moments. The protagonist, it must say the name, but I don’t remember, fell in love with a boy at camp. The story is good, it’s interesting. But, as pretty much always, it’s how the story is told, not what the story is. 

“It has started to rain; the dirt around the woman’s bare feet is flecked with red-brown quotation marks-her body a thing spoken with. Her white shirt clings against her bony shoulders as she sweats. The grass all around her is flattened, as if god has pressed his hand there, reserving a space for an eight day. It’s a beautiful country, she’s been told, depending on who you are.”

and 

“We had eggs sautéed in diced tomatoes and fish sauce over rice for dinner. I was wearing a grey-red plaid button-up from L.L. Bean. You were in the kitchen, washing up, humming. The TV was on, playing a rerun of Rugrats, Lan clapping to the animated show. One of the bulbs in the bathroom buzzed, the wattage too strong for the socket.”

and 

“Inside a single-use life, there are no second chances. That’s a lie but we live it. We live anyway. That’s a lie but the boy opens his eyes. The room a grey-blue smear. There’s music coming through the walls. Chopin, the only thing she listens to. The boy climbs out of bed and the corners of the room tilt on an axis, like a ship.”

Ok. Well, a lot of hyphenated colors. And other hyphens. Too many hyphens, possibly. But goddamn, is that not poetry? I actually don’t know. It seems pretty poetic to me though, and it makes the story interesting. It’s weird to think about, but the story of a closeted gay son of an abuse Vietnamese war refugee could have been boring. Some people aren’t good at telling stories. Ocean Vuong? He’s good. Just maybe cool it with the hyphens. 

Anyway. It’s a good book. I should review a shitty book sometime, switch it up. Why though? Jesus. Bad enough to take the time to read one then to actually write about it. Bad enough the time it took to write one in the first place! A sweater could have been knitted. If you can’t tell, I’m having a hard time wrapping this one up. So I’m just gonna stop. 


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