Thursday Poem: Aubade With Burning City by Ocean Vuong

Hello again! It’s Thursday (in America), and I’m back to talk poetry. It’s been a long day of editing and revising my own work and I wasn’t sure if I was even going to be able to find a poem to talk about (I haven’t had as much time for my own reading lately).

Enter Twitter. I see someone has linked to a poem, I follow it, read it, it’s okay – I click on, find another poem by another poet, and it’s better. I check that poet’s bibliography, find a title that jumps out at me, and bam, read one of the best poems I’ve read all year. Not to hype it too much or anything, but I absolutely love it. And I love, too, how quickly I was able to find it. We have a habit of thinking things will be more difficult than they are, and when it comes to finding excellent poetry, I feel this is especially true. The truth of the matter is there is so much great poetry out there, it’s a wonder we’re not stumbling over it more often than we are.

In this case, the poem sending me into hyperbolic raptures is Aubade With Burning City by Ocean Vuong, a Vietnamese-American poet. I can’t reproduce it here because to do so would rob it of its movement, its dance across the page, and his use of enjambment is so stunning, and adds so much texture to the piece, that I just can’t bring myself to do that. You should absolutely click on that link and go over to the Poetry Foundation, however, to read this poem, which has its setting in Vietnam. Crucial context to the poem is provided at the beginning:

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.

You can see immediately what an incredible backdrop this is over which to project a poem, but it’s worth mentioning as well that its richness, its uniqueness, poses a challenge too, in that what follows must be truly sensational to rise above it – to be every bit as memorable as this moment in history. It’s a challenge easily met by Vuong, whose lyricism is nothing short of dazzling.

Lyrics of the song “White Christmas” drift through the staggered stanzas, the words which fall like snow, like debris scattered across a field of battle, and add a surreal touch to the absolutely fantastic imagery Vuong employs so masterfully, again and again. If this were all the poem managed to achieve — striking images and absurdism laced with lyrics — it would still be worth noting, but that it manages to also tell an evocative story, to bring the place, the moment, to life, is what really elevates this work to another level.

I could talk about it all day, honestly, and I so very much want to share its many outstanding lines, but I can’t be certain WordPress won’t mangle them, and I dare not risk such a tragedy. But enough rambling — go and read it!

It’s a poem I’ll be reading again and again for years to come, and if you read it, too, I’m confident you’ll say the same. It really is that good.

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