Write About New York City



The Weight of Our Living: On Hope, Fire Escapes, and Visible Desperation

by Ocean Vuong

There should be tears. There should be a reason. It’s 7:34 p.m. on New Year’s Eve. I am lying in my kitchen in Astoria, New York, my cheek pressed to the cold tiles. My mother has just called. My child, she says in Vietnamese, her voice barely a gasp, your uncle has killed himself. Hearing the words actually come from her mouth, she immediately starts wailing into the phone. I open my eyes and see only the blue and yellow tiles on the kitchen floor. Little blue flowers on tiny sun-lit fields. When did I fall? Is that my voice? I didn’t know it could sound like that: like an animal that just learned the word for God. The cell phone lies open beside me. I can hear my mother—now hysterical—sobbing through the crackling receiver. I reach for it. She is pleading for me to come home. And I can. I can take the bus or the train from Penn Station and be in Hartford before midnight—but I won’t. I can’t. Instead, I tell her the trains aren’t working. That I will find a way home in the morning. In my shock I am selfish. I hang up. I go for a walk. And I keep walking, passing people decked in glitter, plastic top hats, and glasses with “2013” across their eyes, shuffling to the myriad bars or parties to drink and welcome the new year. I walk until I end up in Brooklyn—near midnight, by the East River. My fingers and snot-brightened lips numb from cold and grief. Fireworks unravel across the New York skyline, coloring the black water with shredded light as I stand in the sharp, freshly anointed January air—and scream.

. . .

I love going on walks by myself. No pressure to keep up conversation. And there is something about movement that helps me think. To charge an idea with the body’s inertia. To carry a feeling through the distance and watch it grow. When I first arrived in New York City I spent most of my time wandering. I was seventeen and wanted to write poems. With a red notebook and a slim volume of Lorca’s verses tucked under my arm, I walked the bright and liquid avenues, not ever bothering to look at street names or even where I was heading. I would start at my friend’s illegal basement-sublet (where I was sleeping on a couch salvaged from the back of a local Salvation Army) in Jamaica, Queens and trek until I ended up in Park Slope, Red Hook, Richmond Hill, or Gowanus, and once—even an abandoned shipyard near Far Rockaway.

During these aimless forays, I kept finding myself looking up—particularly on residential streets lined with anything from monolithic tenements to luxury brownstones. But I also saw, attached to nearly every building, a skeletal structure of architectural finesse equal, in my eyes, to any of the city’s glittering towers. Fire escapes. Not buildings exactly, but accessories. Iron rods fused into vessels of descent—and departure. Some were painted blue or yellow or green, but most were black. Black staircases.

I could spend a whole hour sitting across the street from a six-floor walk-up studying the zig-zags that clung to a building filled with so many hidden lives. All that richness and drama sealed away in a fortress whose walls echoed with communication of elemental or exquisite language—and yet only the fire escape, a clinging extremity, inanimate and often rusting, spoke—in its hardened, exiled silence, with the most visible human honesty: We are capable of disaster. And we are scared.

It’s New Year’s Day. I’m standing in my uncle’s home in Hartford. The front door is propped open to air out the small one-bedroom apartment. It’s snowing. Sharp flakes flicker through the doorway and turn to rain on my face. A portion of yellow police tape flaps from the mailbox. I walk into the hallway where my uncle’s body was just removed the night before. For some reason, I thought the police, during their investigation and collection of evidence, would make things presentable for the family. I don’t know why I expected this. Maybe I’ve seen too many crime shows where a seasoned detective would prepare the grieving loved ones with a little speech before ushering the mourners into ground zero, forensics officers stepping gingerly across the rooms. But the police are long gone. And the first thing I see is the chair—sitting right beneath the attic opening where he placed a weight bar across and tied the rope. Next are the belts. Three of them—littered around the chair, all snapped at the buckle and coiled on the hardwood like decapitated snakes. He was determined. My legs grow loose, liquid. My jaw throbbing. I rush into the bathroom and vomit into the sink. As my sixth cup of coffee swirls down the drain I start to feel a wave of incredible sadness fill my bones. In his house, my uncle’s absence is sharpened. The running faucet. The silent rooms. My arms heavy, I kneel at the sink, listening to the water, letting it drown the dull ache in my temples. I open my mouth to speak—but no one’s here to listen. I open my mouth to pray, in earnest, but quickly abandon the endeavor when I hear my mother’s voice outside the house, calling my name. She’s walking up the driveway with a tray of food and a small folding table in her arms. I quickly grab the belts and toss them up into the attic’s dark, opened mouth. I never want to see them again.

My mother comes in and starts placing hot dishes of vegetarian food on the small table. Her hands are shaking. The sound of utensils and glasses knocking into each other. This food is for my uncle. We Vietnamese believe the dead can still be nourished by our offerings and goodwill—even long after their death. She lights a bundle of incense and places a photo of him on the table between a steaming plate of rice and tofu braised in soy sauce and green beans. The picture is the yearbook photo from his senior year in high school. Taken almost ten years ago, it’s still true to his late features. He isn’t smiling, but his lips are parted slightly, as if on the verge of speaking. My mother and I kneel before the makeshift altar and raise the incense to our foreheads. We prostrate. We bow as if the dead, through their growing absence, have suddenly become larger than life. Tell your uncle to eat, she says, looking down at the floor. Uncle, I say, to no one, please eat... We miss you. Read more...

By Ocean Vuong, August 28th, 2014, published in The Rumpus.



Back to the top.


Ocean Vuong

Interview (From Best American Poetry)

To quote Angry Asian Man: who are you? What are you all about?

This is something I'm still trying to figure out. It's hard to put language to it because I feel like what I am keeps changing every day. But maybe I'm not supposed to know. Do I even want to know? Some days I feel like a human. Some days I feel more like a sound.

Tell me about your current or most recent project. How did you transform it from its genesis to its current form?

I just completed my first full-length poetry collection so my mind is taking a respite from poetry at the moment. Which gives me space to work on this essay about fire escapes, something I have been thinking about for a couple of years. And there are so many of them in New York most of the time I am looking up at all those little dark steel skeletons. I have found that the more I observe them the more I see them as representations of art. There's this allure to the idea of a utilitarian vehicle of "escape", and that something so infused with connotations of danger is also fully present and visible in our daily lives. In a way, the fire escape achieves what I aspire to do with poetry: explore my own fears and desperations without shame or guise - and I think: how can my work as an artist be as honest and clear as the fire escape? What would the poem look like if it was all fire escape and no building? All bones for departure? What formal enactments, what rhetorical gestures would have to occur for the poem to inhabit such a space? And, most importantly, how does the view differ from up there? Tell me what you get excited about, in terms of your poetry and your work.

What have you discovered in the process of shaping and forming your manuscript(s)? What has shaped, challenged, or invigorated your poetic practice?

Language excites me. Irrational thought excites me. I spend most of my time listening instead of writing. A shard of language might come: a phrase, a word, an anagram, and I'd just keep it in my pocket, like a little seed, warming in my fist. In a good year, I draft about 6-8 poems - and maybe 4 or 5 of those will be decent enough to keep and revise. I like to test and explore that creative process, see how far a poem develops without ever writing anything down. I think I'm most invigorated by watching images grow in my mind, how they shift and move, how they layer themselves through days, months, even years. In this way, I feel more akin to a strange and ephemeral mental space shared by all artists, not just poets: the space of absolute potentiality, unbounded by genre or the limits of their tools. I think I write so slowly because I don't ever quite want to leave this space. The physical poem, for me, is just an artifact of all its senses. Maybe this is why writing is so fraught with anxiety for me. What I find on the page, even at its clearest manifestations, is only a residue. But sometimes, if I'm lucky, that's more than enough.

Who are your influences? If you could map a poetic lineage, how would it look? Or the opposite: whose work do you admire and come back to, but contrasts from your own work?

I tend to find my influences in independent moments rather than entire works, even going as micro as the singular line or syntactic units. In this way, I try to find influence in nearly every poet I read. Of course, this is not always the case - but I think it's still beneficial to read with this gaze, this aspiration. I just figure that if someone spent so many hours writing and thinking about a work, there must be something it can teach me. Naturally, this inclination extends beyond poetry. And maybe it's helpful to approach a work of art sans the confines of its genre - or even its artist, but more as a phenomenon of raw observation - removed from ego and the (faulty) expectations harbored through one's name, identity, or school of thought. In short, I try to approach the world as an artist by trusting in its inherent potency - and my work is only one interpretation of its abundance. Read more...

From Best American Poetry, interview by Sally Wen Mao.