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Presented by State Library Victoria

Ocean Vuong

Poets have not been silenced by the digital age. Poetry has simply morphed into something else, something we hear rather than see. But that doesn’t mean that the traditional ways of manipulating words into rhythms on paper is obsolete. The art lives on through contemporary writers, one of which is a young Vietnamese-American called Ocean Vuong. Admittedly, I only recently started reading his work and I’m already really enjoying it. He beautifully captures his family’s history and explores the themes of transformation, desire and loss.

In 2016 he poured his heart into his collection of poetry ‘Night sky with exit wounds’, his multi award-winning bestseller. Much of it reflected on his family’s past and his own.

Ocean had a great story to tell and, through his poetry, he told it powerfully. He has admitted that for him writing poetry is an act of survival. For me, writing and reading are both acts of survival. Through reading and writing I can delve into the unfamiliar. They are a vacation from reality, but is also set right at the heart of it.

Let’s briefly look back his family’s past. His grandfather was a US soldier who fell in love with a Vietnamese farm girl. They had a family together, but unfortunately their home town was razed  to the ground and their three daughters were separated at different orphanages. By the time the family was reunited Ocean had been born. As a two year old he came to the US as a refugee and did not learn to read until he was eleven. Even though Ocean comes from a non-English speaking background and also from a family with a history of dyslexia and learning difficulties, he has a remarkable way with words. His poems have even been compared to Emily Dickinson’s work.

So below I’ve listed several of his masterpieces. Check ’em out!


Aubade with Burning City

The poem is set in Saigon, Vietnam, where his grandparents witnessed their home being destroyed. It describes the chaos at the burning city, while also inserting in lines from “White Christmas”. The juxtaposition does have a really strong effect and was what really caught my attention. Apparently, the carol was used by Americans as a signal for evacuation. When Ocean’s grandmother would hear that song over the radio she would be brought back to that miserable day.



Ocean plays with words really well, and I have to say, he took that to such an intricate level in his piece DetoNation. Even how he named the poem, displays that he put a lot of thought into it. Rather than simply being “detonation”, he divides that word to establish a new meaning that is so much more powerful. He could be gesturing at this explosive disaster that has had an effect that spreads and overwhelms a nation. What also does add power to his words is the continuous mention of a “father” who urges him to be brave. Bravery isn’t something only confined to soldiers. I think we all have to be brave at some point in our lives. So be inspired by the courageous people around you and even be inspired by courageous characters in stories.


A Little Closer to the Edge

In this poem Ocean sums up in the first sentence that our world can change for the better if we all believe it can and do something about it. He is right. Change is a team effort. It’s hard to make change alone. His metaphors describe the potential danger and threat in any object. I guess that could symbolise the unpredictability in living. What I really like about this poem is the way he plays around with the English language to create something new and unforeseeable.


Toy boat

In 2014 a 12 year-old boy named Tamir Rice was shot by a police officer, after having been spotted holding a toy gun. In his name, Ocean wrote a beautiful poem dedicated to him. This is probably my favoured poem, as it is unique in the sense that he had in mind one particular person while writing it, yet his words are relatable to so many others. The toy boat symbolises the innocence of youth, but I think we all understand what it’s like to be drifting along in an oarless boat without a clear destination. Sometimes we know where our lives are headed and we can steer our lives in that direction. Sometimes, maybe a lot of the time, we are clueless.