When short forms are everywhere, from Facebook to Twitter, everyone fancies themselves a minor poet. Social media has provided the form, and now the content of poetry skews towards a celebration of the unadorned, defiant self.
My favorite example of this phenomenon is from John Updike, specifically his last collection of poetry, Endpoint. Assembled late in his life and published mere weeks before his own death, the collection starts out by cataloguing Updike’s recent birthdays. In “March Birthday, 2002, and After”, Updike awakens “alone and older, the storm that aged me / distilled to a skin of reminiscent snow.” Updike begins by describing this particular day in the manner of a weather report; the placid, snow-bound morning after the howling blizzard of his life. Ordinarily, a weather report would have something to offer the local community. Prepare for difficult driving conditions. Make sure to shovel your driveway. Updike’s imagery here is rich, but circular, having to do with Updike himself. This is not a weather report, but an Updike report, a final word of sorts. Having found ample time to contemplate his death, Updike relishes the opportunity to put the finishing touches on a life defined by self-reflection. Concluding “March Birthday”, Updike makes all days his own: “Birthday, death day—what day is not both?”
There’s something being said here about the confluence of experiences bound up in each 24-hour period; there’s also something being said of Updike himself. Specifically, we are told that each new dawn is an opportunity to celebrate the life of Updike, a gratuitous existential attempt to vaunt the self over all things, to make Updike the center of Updike’s own world, to have the final word.
For a long time, Endpoint was the only book of Updike’s that I owned. For this I blame David Foster Wallace, whose essay, “Certainly the End of Something or Other, One Would Sort of Have to Think”, is responsible for turning me off Updike and his work. In this scathing review of Updike’s late science-fiction novel Toward the End of Time (1997), Wallace lumps Updike with the other “Great Male Narcissists” of his generation, or—to use the Wallacian acronym—GMNs. The novel is an apocalyptic, futuristic meditation on the end of the self, of the world, whatever; for Wallace, the novel’s subject matter is beside the point. The novel flounders not because Updike is a bad sci-fi writer, or even a bad writer, but because Updike has fallen for a certain generational symptom. While the novel is indeed “clunky and self-indulgent,” Wallace is most critical of an attitude operative in Updike’s generation: the deterioration of a “brave new individualism” into “the joyless and anomic self-indulgence of the me-generation…the prospect of dying without even once having loved something more than yourself.” It was with Wallace’s critique in mind that I picked up Endpoint, and I found Wallace to be tragically correct.
This attitude has not gone away with modernists like Updike, but has bled over into the equally self-referential tendencies postmodern culture through the valuation of identity and independence. While we may now withhold judgment of others’ truths and are hesitant to totalize with our own, we still cultivate our private worlds with as much zeal as the GMNs—curating our self within the ether of the internet. So I am excited by poets who can take us—take me—outside of this interiority.
Ocean Vuong is one such poet. His first collection, Night Sky With Exit Wounds, is a profound contemplation not of the self in isolation, but the self in transaction. Vuong was born in Vietnam, the son of a Vietnamese farm girl and an American soldier, and raised in America by his mother and grandmother. Inhabiting a body that is both queer and racially complex, interior reflection for Vuong is not indulgent, but vital; what does it mean to inhabit a body that is threatened, a body that doesn’t fit common racial and sexual categories? In spite of this, Vuong, does not capitulate to the self-referential impulse. Rather, his poetry extends beyond himself, seeking to understand, to thank, and to forgive.
In recounting a tryst with another young man behind a baseball dugout in “Because It’s Summer”, Vuong describes a sexual experience not in terms of self-gratification, but of gratitude: “…but you don’t / deserve it: the boy & / his loneliness the boy who finds you / beautiful only because you’re not / a mirror.” Vuong’s lines are fragmentary, trapping words that evoke desperation and hope: deserve, loneliness, beautiful, mirror. Rather than using sexuality as a means to assert the self or resolve a crisis of identity, Vuong’s taut syntax transforms the experience into an undeserved grace. Vuong understands both himself and his partner to be selves in isolation. Inhabiting queer bodies, both boys have found each other in loneliness, and find each other beautiful because they are not “a mirror,” not the same. While they share a kind of loneliness, they inhabit different selves.
This experience of both sameness and difference calls Vuong out of himself, and for this inversion Vuong has no response but a fervent stream of “thank you thank you thank you… because that’s what you say / when a stranger steps out of summer / & offers you another hour to live.” Rather than celebrating or bemoaning the self, Vuong celebrates the other, recognizing how his needs are met by the body and companionship of another. Here Vuong does not celebrate self-reliance, but surrender, a surrender evoked in the brevity of the lines themselves as they cascade in small rivulets down the page.
This exteriorizing of the self through the other is replicated in a poem about Vuong’s relationship with his father, ‘To My Father / To My Future Son’. In this particular poem, Vuong imagines himself as both father and son, inhabiting the difference and sameness that characterized “Because It’s Summer”: “Look, my eyes are not / your eyes. / You move through me like rain / heard / from another country.” These lines manage to address both Vuong’s American father and Vuong’s unborn son—perhaps never to be born. Both figures move through Vuong “like rain,” familiar and close, and yet infinitely distant, “heard from another country.” There is intimacy, “you move through me,” and rupture “my eyes are not / your eyes.” Vuong’s suggestion to his father and son, across these paradoxes, is again to refuse the impulse to seize, to possess, and control: “If you are given my body, put it down.” Vuong’s father is to release the body of his son, and Vuong himself, as a possible father, is to operate as a body separate from that of his son. This is not a celebration of the singular self, but a chastening reminder that there is more to the self than singularity.
These complex relationships remain a permanent problem for Vuong, but this does not keep him from offering an answer. Responding to these complexities, and chastening the self, is the role of poetry. In the closing lines of “For My Father”, Vuong writes, “Turn back & find the book I left / for us, filled / with all the colors of the sky forgotten by gravediggers. / Use it. / Use it to prove how the stars / were always what we knew / they were: the exit wounds / of every misfired word.” Vuong’s “book,” his own poetry, is a means to gently dissect and understand the complex of relationships that constitute the self.
The poetry collection serves as a kind of key, filled with “colors… forgotten,” words that illuminate and teach. These words are not docile things, however; they are sharp and dangerous. Words are inherently relational, disclosing meaning only in plurality, in the context of other words. Because all words are neighbors, one “misfired” word can transform the truth of the entire sentence. This same relationality applies to the language we offer in service of ourselves and of the other.
In Vuong’s eponymous metaphor, our descriptions are like falling stars that emerge, fast and aflame, from the inscrutable darkness of space. These descriptions can serve us by imposing categories in language, but they can also do harm to the self for the exact same reason, cutting off alternative identities, revealing new truths at the expense of others. This is how language leaves “exit wounds” when “misfired” from the self. Faulty descriptions can do much harm, and are never made in a vacuum.
The metaphor is complex and rich, but the lesson is clear: selves are understood in descriptions, in language, and in relationship. Knowing this, Vuong calls his reader to risk the harm of language to know others as well as themselves. The self, if indeed a complex of relationships that are not easily described, requires extensive work, humility, and others to grasp. There is the risk of harm in the exchange, but the beauty of language draws us on our journey of understanding.
For Vuong, poetry is not a matter of asserting the self, but a matter of meeting other selves across the natural distances that exist between us. When such meetings occur, as in “Because It’s Summer”, our obligation is gratitude, not control. The words we offer in service of our self-description to others tear out of us like falling stars, motes of light in the darkness of the self, making us vulnerable. In watching for these stars, Vuong‘s poetry is turned outwards. It is an expression gratitude for the sight and touch of the other, bearing wounds with words in search of intimacy.
This poetry is a repudiation of Updike’s type of poetry with its attempt to have the last word, and to have it by himself, unshared. Where Updike would know himself through himself, Vuong seeks to know himself through others.
Vuong’s poetry emerges as a beautiful and gracious offering, seeking empathy while eschewing a self-referential impulse. In the first line of his opening poem, “Threshold”, Vuong writes that “In the body, where everything has a price, / I was a beggar.” Maybe this is the self we need to reimagine today. Not as kings, shaping our relationships and identities to suite us, but as supplicants, kneeling in the streets for a little communion, a little bread.