21st Century Masculinity by Ocean Vuong – A Poetry Review

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Emotion is the heartbeat that resonates throughout Ocean Vuong’s poetry. Challenging the limitations of heteronormative masculinity, Ocean’s poetry views masculinity in truth rather than fantasy. Encapsulating a 21st century man who experiences love, grief, rage, sex and longing. Ocean’s poetry champions sensitivity and interpersonal relationships. Raised by mostly women after his father abandoned their family, Ocean’s poetry is deeply personal and tied to his queer Vietnamese-American identity.

Today, many young men are redefining what manhood means to them. As expectations of women have changed, so have the expectations of men in our society. But a lot of young men are finding themselves in a crisis of masculinity. Taught to see manhood as the embodiment of strength and bravery often leaves little room for the other facets of the male experience.

Ocean Vuong is a poet and novelist, born in Vietnam and raised in the Connecticut, U.S.A. from the age of two. Many of Ocean’s poems proudly focus on his Vietnamese family and culture. Ocean’s poem ‘Kissing in Vietnamese’ is a perfect demonstration of how passion is sewn into every word he uses. The poem begins with the line “My grandmother kisses / as if bombs are bursting in the backyard”, calling back to his family’s escape from the introduction of the communist regime in Saigon. Ocean is frequently prose-like in his delivery. Throughout the poem Ocean imagines a “body” that is falling, dancing in his mind’s eye as his grandmother kisses him. The “boy” is being tortured in Vietnam under an oppressive regime. The plosive “bombs/bursting” and “body” of the “boy” carry a threat of violence along the narrative.

Ocean describes love as longing, all-encompassing and the source of comfort and acceptance. His grandmother kisses with desperation, as if the moment could slip through her fingers and be lost forever. Together Ocean and his grandmother share a moment of gratefulness for the lives they are living. But the constant reminder of those who did not escape the communist regime in Saigon haunts him. The speaker is imagining “somewhere, a body…falling apart” which follows him around. The speaker is experiences survivor’s guilt that he and his grandmother have survived while others were not so fortunate. His inability to ignore the thought of ‘what if’, what if he had not been so lucky, leaks into his grandmother’s affection like a virus. Ocean’s poetry is saturated with compassion for others and gratitude at his own survival.

But then he says “When my grandmother kisses, there would be / no flashy smooching, no western music” criticising the desire there can be to romanticise trauma. Through movies about war and loss that don’t accurately depict the fallout of displacement and the life of a refugee. It can be rare to see non-romantic and non-sexual forms of love depicted in a poem from a male perspective, but Ocean does not shy away from creating new conventions. The importance of storge, familial love is imbued into Ocean’s love of storytelling. His grandmother’s kisses transcend a momentary affectionate gesture and turns into a symbol of gratitude. An unspoken language:

“My grandmother kisses as if history

never ended, as if somewhere

a body is still

falling apart.”

The significance of reminding yourself that history is always being made and destinies are not fated can be gathered from this poem. Ocean makes free-verse feel honest and sophisticated. He imagines a “torso would dance from exit wounds” and brings the visceral reality of war and a body hit by shrapnel and “fire” to life. Ocean believes his grandmother “kisses as if to breathe / you inside her” recalling the safety of family bonds and the issue of shared trauma.

The body is an important symbol in Ocean’s poetry. His bodies are homes to family values, love and incredible memories of perseverance. His grandmother breathes “so that your scent is relearned” encompassing the power of olfactory memories. The anxiety of losing love and freedom is mimicked by the effortless tactile imagery: “as if while she holds you / death also, is clutching your wrist”, in Ocean’s poetry the preciousness of fleeting moments is described carefully in the nuances of body language.

The importance of family is often connected as a facet to the female identity but Ocean is proud to bring attention to the figures in his poetry who made him who he is. A common feature used by Ocean is for his poems to end with a plea for empathy and understanding. In Ocean’s poetry, manhood is defined by the coming-of-age story and unflinching pride in one’s self and where you came from.

In ‘Partly True Poem Reflected in a Mirror’, Ocean’s tone is grief-stricken. Images move across the page like a phantasmagorical monster – terrible, consuming and honest. Even the title reflects a hesitation to admit to feeling sadness, a departure from masculine paragons. Ocean’s empathy for others creeps into this poem. But the feelings are challenged by the expectation of men to be detached from negative emotions. Ocean imagines listening to a stereo, hearing an announcement that “17 children are gunned down in afghanistan today / and I think: shouldn’t it be gunned up?” showing the inner conflict between expectation and reality. He feels guilt over the “heroes who killed themselves / trying to save / my life” which conjures an image of dispensable soldiers dying for their country or from suicide. The unexpected lack of emotion in the second clause exemplifies how men can become desensitised to the pain of others while they are in pain themselves.

The poem explores suicide ideation. Sadness and violence are intertwined in this poem like two sides of the same coin representing the side of masculinity men feel they are allowed to show and the other that they are criticised for showing. The informal presentation of this poem is an introspective reflection. Quickly scribbled like notes in a diary or dictated by a therapist’s patient. The stream of consciousness echoes rambling to a therapist, a friend or the words swirling in one’s own head. The rate of suicide in young men is one of the demographics’ biggest killers. In so many cultures, boys are conditioned to think asking for help is a sign of weakness. Thus, the sensitivity of men is a topic many men are uncomfortable discussing.

Ocean confesses “i want to find a gun / and change myself” like a plea for help. The dreamy atmosphere to the poem is beguiling and horrifying simultaneously as Ocean tries to make sense of this very real problem. The speaker conjures the thought of self-medicating with “pills” like “‘the teeth of an angel’” to bring instant relief to depression and anxiety. Ocean Vuong is a practicing Zen Buddhist and some of the principles of this type of spiritualism translates into his work. The desire to be present and cherish even trivial moments in life is encouraged through his slice of life approach to narrative. His work often reads like a meditation of images as he looks for meaning in his life through feeling and memory rather than logic. In this moment of anguish however, the speaker sees a snapshot image of “the statue of a plastic buddha / decapitated” with the forward slash imitating the decapitation. As if calling out moments where enlightenment seems out of reach and as counterfeit as plastic.

Ocean states: “what i smoked is working / i take long hits / cause i don’t have healthcare” bringing the poem back to the quotidian. He finds imaginative ways to communicate relatable moments to his readers despite his work being as personally driven as it is. And then he circles back around to the expectations of masculinity in the modern age that are so limiting for every-day men. He says “look I’m sorry I’m reflecting” which puts pressure on the reader to either accept exceptions of manhood or challenge them. The desire to not over-share or be a burden to others is a feeling everyone can relate to. Ocean’s 21st century man does not hide the reality of being imperfect.

Ocean’s poetry anthology ‘Night Sky with Exit Wounds’ helped to launch Ocean’s poetry to international fame in 2016. The enormously popular poetry collection won him the T.S. Eliot Prize in 2017. In 2019, Ocean received the MacArthur Grant in the same year that he released his bestselling debut novel, ‘On Earth We’re Briefly Beautiful’. The novel is told from the perspective a Vietnamese-American son to his illiterate mother. It is inspired directly by Ocean’s life experiences, full of luscious language, vivid imagination and realism. It is soon to be adapted to film by A24. Ocean Vuong is a modern writer that is exciting, skilled and mostly importantly, real.

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