from NO
By Ocean Vuong


Suppose you do change your life.
& the body is more than

a portion of night—sealed
with bruises. Suppose you woke

& found your shadow replaced
by a black wolf. The boy, beautiful

and gone. So you take the knife to the wall
instead. You carve & carve.

Until a coin of light appears
& you get to look in, for once,

on happiness. The eye
staring back from the other side—



And this is how we danced: with our mothers’
white dresses spilling from our feet, late August

turning our hands dark red. And this is how we loved:
a fifth of vodka and an afternoon in the attic, your fingers

sweeping though my hair—my hair a wildfire.
We covered our ears and your father’s tantrum turned

into heartbeats. When our lips touched the day closed
into a coffin. In the museum of the heart

there are two headless people building a burning house.
There was always the shotgun above the fireplace.

Always another hour to kill—only to beg some god
to give it back. If not the attic, the car. If not the car,

the dream. If not the boy, his clothes. If not alive,
put down the phone. Because the year is a distance

we’ve traveled in circles. Which is to say: this is how
we danced: alone in sleeping bodies. Which is to say:

This is how we loved: a knife on the tongue turning
into a tongue.

Today’s poems are from NO, published by Yes Yes Books, copyright © 2013 by Ocean Vuong. “Torso of Air” previously appeared in BODY Literature, and “Home Wrecker” previously appeared in Linebreak. These poems appear here today with permission from the poet.

NO: Anyone who has already sensed that “hope is a feathered thing that dies in the Lord’s mouth,” should get their hands on NO. Honest, intimate, and brimming with lyric intensity, these stunning poems come of age with a fifth of vodka and an afternoon in an attic, with a record stuck on please, with starlight on a falling bomb. Even as Vuong leads you through every pleasure a body deserves and all the ensuing grief, these poems restore you with hope, that godforsaken thing—alive, singing along to the radio, suddenly sufficient. —Traci Brimhall, Our Lady of the Ruins

Ocean Vuong is a recipient of a 2013 Pushcart Prize as well as fellowships from Kundiman, Poets House, and The Saltonstall Foundation for the Arts. Poems appear in Poetry, The Nation, Beloit Poetry Journal, Passages North, Quarterly West, Denver Quarterly, and American Poetry Review, which awarded him the 2012 Stanley Kunitz Prize for Younger Poets. He lives in Queens, NY.

Editor’s Note: I’m just going to come right out and say this: Ocean Vuong is one of the best and most important poets writing in America today. I have not been so moved as I am by Vuong’s words since I first read Li-Young Lee. This poet has changed my life. He has renewed my belief in American poetry. That it can be emotional and heartbreaking. That is can be beautiful and full of hope. That modern American poetry can—and does—matter. In my humble opinion your poetry collection is simply not complete unless it houses both Vuong’s groundbreaking chapbook, Burnings, and his newest release from Yes Yes Books, NO.

NO is a surprisingly experimental collection, yet Vuong remains dedicated to the lyric and the narrative, guiding us through its formal twists and turns through emotive language and evocative imagery. Throughout its pages the poet intimately explores themes of love, sexuality, and belonging against a backdrop of devastating loss. It is a brilliant and beautiful collection, a true heartbreaking work of staggering genius. As the book’s publisher did when reading through the manuscript for the first time, when Ocean Vuong says NO to you, be prepared to say “Yes Yes!”

Want to see more from Ocean Vuong?
Buy NO from Yes Yes
The Poetry Foundation
Interview in The Well & Often Reader
Ben Lerner on mentoring Ocean Vuong, Brooklyn College


By Ocean Vuong:


is to place a hand
  on another’s chest and know
  that the heart only beats
  when locked in a cage
  of bone.


Dawn cracks: a lightning bolt
carving slowly through the clouds.

All night I listened to your breath.
Even tasted your lips
when the moon turned you pale
as a corpse.
I haven’t killed a thing

since the morning
we followed gunshots into a field
peppered with sparrows. Remember
how their necks twitched
beneath our thumbs? Before twisting,
I took some time to feel

the rage of wings against palm,
marveling at such fierce resistance
to mercy. Perhaps
it was selfish—I couldn’t bear
the sound of wings
flying nowhere.

Darling, forgive me. When you wake
and begin to flutter in the emptiness
still warm from my whispers,
I will be too far
from this field
to wrap my hands around
that little bird
                               in your chest.

(“To Love Well” and “Departure” were originally published in Diode. Both poems are reprinted here today with permission from the poet.)

Ocean Vuong: Born in Saigon, Vietnam, Ocean Vuong is the author of Burnings (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2010) and is currently an undergraduate at Brooklyn College, CUNY. His poems have received an Academy of American Poets Prize, the Beatrice Dubin Rose Award, the Connecticut Poetry Society’s Al Savard Award, as well as four Pushcart Prize nominations. Poems appear in Word Riot, Diode, Lantern Review, Softblow, and PANK, among others. Work has also been translated into Hindi, Korean, Vietnamese, and Russian. He lives in Brooklyn and is an avid supporter of animal rights and veganism.

Editor’s Note: I find Ocean Vuong at once inspiring and inhibiting. Like Rimbaud before him, I am in awe of Ocean’s extreme talent and numerous accomplishments at his age, and at the same time I am inhibited by feelings of inferiority when considering both his written word and his accolades. I’ll try to err on the side of inspiration and say that I am honored to be sharing a city, a school, and a genre with this exceptionally gifted poet. Ordinarily I would share with you some of my favorite moments from today’s poems, but I am honestly in awe of every word, every beat, every line. I urge you to read and re-read today’s poems; it is like breathing a new kind of air. I also urge you to consider buying Ocean’s first chapbook, Burnings, to support both this up-and-coming artist and Sibling Rivalry Press, an on-the-rise press you should be keeping an eye on.

Want to read more by and about Ocean Vuong?
Ocean Vuong’s Blog
Buy Ocean Vuong’s book, Burnings
An interview with PANK magazine