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

A Review of Rachael Lyon’s The Normal Heart and How It Works

Lyon_The Normal Heart_Poetry

A Review of Rachael Lyon’s The Normal Heart and How It Works

By Kirsten Clodfelter

Beyond the page in human form, Rachael Lyon is petite and funny and kind. She speaks patiently and with near-constant laughter. She is bright, warm-spirited, the pet mother of a small, adorable pup named Thomas. She writes thoughtful letters—a better penpal than most of us. She is the sort of person who asks meaningful questions of both close friends and strangers, the sort of person who asks these questions and then really listens as she’s given the answers so that these answers can form the next questions.

Her generosity is so marked that she is the kind of person about whom we might apply the cliché but well-fitting platitude: A beautiful heart. And it is beautiful in the way Lyon’s warmth overflows from it, in the way being around her will put a person almost instantly at ease, but the truth is, since birth, Lyon’s beautiful heart was imperfect. “It’s not that it’s a bad heart,” she explains in “Transplant No. 2,” her tone edged with apology, her voice rushed to explain the defect as something that doesn’t have to define her, “The heart has a bad valve, not a bad valve but a small one. Too small.”

The same pragmatic earnestness that fills her letters and that make her a great conversationalist can be found in the poems of The Normal Heart and How It Works, her first chapbook. Her language, these fragmented moments she offers to the reader, are a type of gentle carrying: “It’s just that mothers sometimes think / of things the way they should be.” But there is a deep, unmistakable power in her writing too, an honesty that does not falter or even blink, and this we can credit to Lyon’s earnestness as well.

In “Moving,” Lyon recounts as she (or an imagined version of her) and her sister, as children, climb through the frame of an unfinished house that will soon be their new home, finally giving into temptation and breaking their “no-touch rule” to mark the territory as their own. And later, after the house in finished and the move is complete, Lyon admits as if in a conspiratorial whisper:

In the summer when I put my face

against the wall, next to the light

switch, I can smell bubbleyum

and sour jealously and something else:

a kind of craving for this place,

or for being pushed beyond it.

That is a craving nearly all of us know. Relating to Lyon comes quickly, easily, and this is true whether she’s discussing something as universal as moving or the complicated relationships between siblings or the specific, unique fears that belong to someone with a congenital heart defect. In deceptively light, conversational language, Lyon brings us right into her body to experience with her the physical and psychological effects of the too-small valve in her heart, the danger that has been hers to dismantle since birth, the “process of becoming a more perfect self,” as she writes in the collection’s introduction.

Five beautiful and haunting poems interspersed throughout this slim book, each titled “Transplant,” thread together her work as skillfully and carefully as the surgeon’s stitch. Just over a year ago, a cardiovascular team at Mayo Clinic fixed Lyon’s leaking tricuspid valve and nursed her back to health after open-heart surgery. Nine months later, she successfully ran her first 5K, with a heart that no longer “beats faster, beats faster longer than other hearts.” But even in light of this transformation, the writing in Lyon’s 2010 collection is no less urgent, no less terrifying. As we read, we are right there with her, nodding in agreement when she tells us in “The Trouble with Glass”:

My fears are numerous.

Rotund and pushing

from my chest:

ribs are cagey

sometimes they let the bad stuff through[.]

Because no matter how perfect or imperfect our hearts, we too have fears, and, like Lyon’s, they are numerous.

Rachael Lyon, The Normal Heart and How It Works, White Eagle Coffee Store Press, 2010: $5


Kirsten Clodfelter holds an MFA from George Mason University. She has contributed writing to The Iowa ReviewBrevityNarrative Magazine, Green Mountains Review, and The Good Men Project, among others. A Glimmer Train Honorable Mention and winner of the Dan Rudy Prize, her chapbook of war-impact stories, Casualties, was published this October by RopeWalk Press. Clodfelter writes and lives in Southern Indiana with her partner and their awesome, hilarious daughter.

A Review of Delaney Nolan’s Shotgun Style: A Diagram of the Territory of New Orleans


A Review of Delaney Nolan’s Shotgun Style: A Diagram of the Territory of New Orleans

By Christopher Lowe

Early in the title story of Delaney Nolan’s chapbook Shotgun Style: A Diagram of the Territory of New Orleans, the narrator describes winter in New Orleans as “barely a bruise.” As I moved through the collection, I thought again and again of that metaphor. I thought of bruises and winters that leave a mark. Nolan’s New Orleans is a bruised place, and it is inhabited by bruised people.

The pain of a damaged place is there in the eight stories of this collection. Physically, the New Orleans of Shotgun Style is still marred by Katrina. There are leveled houses and FEMA trailers, and the pain of those physical realities is at play, but the real pain, the pain that gnaws at the reader, is in the characters themselves. It is a pain that is rooted in loss. One of the best stories in the collection, “Little Monster” brilliantly illustrates Nolan’s skill with handling this loss. In the story, the main character finds a small monster in the gutter, takes it home, feeds it, cares for it. When it dies the next morning, she buries it by the river. The story is short, just three pages, but there is a fully formed narrative movement in that space, a shift from the strange allure of finding a monster to the graveside mourning of the final paragraph. “Little Monster” is a story that doesn’t reference Katrina, flooding, hurricanes, or even New Orleans. It is simple and direct, but there is an undercurrent of pain that throbs below its surface.

Nolan frequently pairs pain with desire. The characters in Shotgun Style yearn for something beyond themselves, something that they can’t articulate, something that may not even exist. In “We Shall Fill Our House With Spoil,” an unnamed narrator takes a job where she must contact people who have taken out classified ads and convince them to let her video them while they show off whatever it is that they’re selling. Her company will air these videos on public access for a portion of the sale. At first, she struggles with this, unable to connect with the people she calls. Eventually, she learns how to get a foot in the door. Once she’s inside their homes, watching them through the camera lens as they describe their possessions, desire takes root. She wants something from life, and she can see it, just out of the corner of her eye, as she’s videoing these people. She says, “I was looking for something. You would have been looking, too. I hadn’t found it in my family, in my sister… But I almost found it on that tape….” There is something out there in the world – call it connection or love or friendship – that she wants to grab hold of, but the only tool she has for accessing it is a camera.

There is a frustration, too, that mounts for the characters in Shotgun Style. It is frustration born from loss, from blocked desire, from lack of that “something” that the narrator of “We Shall Fill Our House With Spoil” is searching for. The beauty of the collection is in Nolan’s ability to take that frustration and pair it with a something more complex, something that hints at the possibility of healing, the possibility of connection, the possibility of “something.”

The final story in the collection, “Ninth Ward Hunters” is a brief piece, set during Mardi Gras. The narrator dances alongside a tribe of Mardi Gras Indians. She moves with them, tries to keep up. By the end of the story, her dancing has become something new. It is part funeral dirge, a lamentation for what is lost. As they move closer to the Ninth Ward, she says, “…now there’s nothing to see. Just government trailers. A bunch of overgrown lots. Just a bunch of empty space where something used to stand.” They are dancing toward this emptiness, and there is remembrance for what was there and for what was lost, but the other part of the dance is something else, something more complicated. A resurrection. “So we dancing towards it to fill it up,” she says. There is pain in that filling, but there is determination as well—a ferocity of intent. When she says, “Me, storm-wrecked, land-drowned, teeth out sharp like the right kind of animal: come to defend what’s mine,” we can see how it looks when the bruise begins to fade.

Delaney Nolan, Shotgun Style: A Diagram of the Territory of New Orleans, RopeWalk Press Fiction Editor’s Chapbook Prize, 2012.


Christopher Lowe is the author of Those Like Us: Stories (SFASU Press, 2011). His fiction has appeared widely in journals including Third Coast, Bellevue Literary Review, and War, Literature, and the Arts. He teaches English and Creative Writing at McNeese State University in Lake Charles, LA.

Drinking with British Architects

A Not-Very-Objective Review

by Raul Clement

Recently, poet Jeff Laughlin sent me a copy of his first collection, Drinking with British Architects. This is a chapbook of less than 50 pages that went through a press run of 100 copies and is now sold out. I would guess that of those 100 copies, 90 of them went to friends or people at the small reading held for its release. To put that in perspective, more people will probably read this blog post than Laughlin’s collection.

And yet it is good. A full disclosure forces me to admit that Laughlin is a friend of mine, and that he offered to send me the book, free of charge, over drinks. So perhaps I wanted to like it; and yet I think, objectively speaking, that it is livelier than most poetry I read in major journals and that the fact that it was released so modestly is a testament to how hard it is to make it in this business, how much toil and sheer luck it takes, and how the cream doesn’t always rise to the top. This is especially true for first collections. Resumes are, of course, a self-powered engine: the more impressive your resume looks, the more likely a journal or small press is to seriously consider your work. Many of these presses are struggling to stay afloat and they probably shouldn’t be faulted for preferring an author with a track record. It does seem a little small-minded when you consider the miniscule difference in sales we are talking about here – does one previous publication in the Black Warrior Review bring with it a rabid cult following? – and yet when you are treading water, you will cling to even the smallest piece of driftwood. As someone who has seen the editorial side of this business, I understand and sympathize with this even while it saddens me.

But let’s look at the collection. The title sounds like a Decemberists song, and indeed, much of the work seems influenced by the new literary side of indie rock. Colin Meloy, singer of the Decemberists, is a graduate of the MFA program at The University of Montana; conversely, Jeff Laughlin was (until his move back to North Carolina from New York) the singer of an acoustic, ballad-based group known as Beards. Many of his poems have a sung quality, aware of their rhythm and canny in their use of repetition, and the overall attitude is one of romantic, drunken Tom Waitsism. This is particularly evident in the “women” poems, which apparently were supposed to be part of their own chapbook, but which the publisher insisted Laughlin include – rightly, I might add. The first is called “The Women I Know” and every stanza begins with that phrase. It is a critique of the pursuit of an empty, surface-type of pleasure at the expense of a deeper happiness:

The women I know crack their
clavicles if only to stick out their

This perfectly conveys the desperate need these women have to be thought of as sexual beings. Another line struck me as entirely accurate to a recent experience I had had with a young woman whose chief aim seemed to be worshipped by every man around her. That he had outed my interior life so accurately bespeaks the quality of the work.

The women I know go about their
pleasure the same way: without
love and continuously.

As you can see here, Laughlin privileges the strong opening word rather than the clever line break. Nouns like “clavicles” and “chest” get initial weight, not the last word. Lines don’t end so much as flow into each other. And here at least, he privileges abstraction over the concrete image – a preference that, as much as the extravagantly sentimental attitude, lends to the quality I’ve already identified as coming from the indie rock lyrical tradition.

But Laughlin is too skilled in other ways to be dismissed as a rock musician turned poet. The collection is united by several systems of images and titles that give it a formal quality its free verse lacks. There is an obsession with body parts – particularly the poet’s own broken and damaged parts. This is from “The Critic’s Worry,” one of a series.

There were grease marks along my arms—
Their length took me off guard.
I scrubbed until capillaries broke,
But my blood was not as thick as the car’s.

This stanza shows that Laughlin has the ability to paint a specific scene using concrete images. It also shows that he is not insensitive to the charms of formalism. Not only does he end every line on a strong monosyllable, but there is a definite respect for rhyme hinted at it in “arms”/”guard”/”cars.” Here are more broken body parts in the sister poem, “A Soldier’s Worry.”

We march through split heels,
chafed shouldertops, sprained ankles, compressed
knees, and, invariably, arthritic knuckles.

I particularly like that word “invariably.” Later more body part imagery, albeit now wed to some nice description of the physical world:

The most amazing things actually do affect us,
ever so slightly: groves of oranges, broken branches,
houses foraged with rotten wood, rain, broken vessels
on elderly hands or voices floating through light brush.

Here “affect us” is echoed by “vessels,” and “groves” by “broken.” Similarly, the repetition of “broken” unites “branches” and “vessels” – the world of nature thus equated with the human body. As the soldiers walk, they are beaten down by the physical world until they become it. Even the voices only come at them “through light brush” –a nice, simple image which also manages to convey painting, and thus art in the abstract.

[Note: these are my interpretations and are in no way intended to suggest authorial intent; this is just a survey of the many association these poems, like all good poetry, inspired in me.]

As I’ve already hinted, it is in repetition where Laughlin really excels. “Lists” finds the poet guessing at the contents of a list left behind by his roommate. Each verse is structured with the casualness of a prose poem and is yet another guess at the list’s contents.

No. You are a list of morose sights—deceased grandparents, bloodied fists, crooked-billed birds with feathers still falling from once-clean windows, dead dogs on the sides of dirt roads. You are the wrong vision at the right time.


No. You are a list of pragmatic decisions—split-ups before things got too serious, pets put to sleep, gifts exchanged on Christmas Eve, shirts in donations boxes despite still being in fashion. You are a remembrance of things still around but unwound from the mind.

There is further subtler repetition here in the mention of another dead pet, this one purposefully and pragmatically “put to sleep.” Similarly, the last lines echo each other.

Another repetition poem, appropriately titled “Simultaneous Reactions,” verges on the annoying but somehow transcends that by sheer brave bombardment. It begins: “Appetites are growing, finger-skin is getting more coarse, strength is waning.” (Another reference to body parts, specifically hands, which are mentioned over and over.) The use of the gerund here makes reading it a bit of a slog, but the joy is in seeing the different uses and combinations Laughlin comes up with. “Parachutes aren’t opening, cause is no longer affecting, science is calculating.” Here “calculating” can be a verb or adjective. Another example of the same: “Waitresses are finishing doubles, carrots are digesting, work is boring.” Not carrots are “being digested,” but are doing the “digesting” (though obviously they are also being digested). Similarly one imagines work “boring” into the speaker’s skull, like a drill. Many other lines have similar effect, making us question our preconceptions of the meaning of words. The sum total of all this repetition is to soak the reader in the variety of world. The poem ends, “I am brimming with capability, I am leaning side-angled into nothing, I am proselytizing.” Not only does this nicely bring the lens back around to the observer, it also hints at the meaning of all these “Simultaneous Reactions.” The poet is “brimming” with the possibilities of the world, but at the same time he is sunk in the infinite “nothing” of its excess, his only recourse “proselytizing” (really just another word for making poetry).

I wish I could sink my teeth more thoroughly into the meat of this collection. I’d like to talk about the series of “Autobiography” poems, the other “women” poems (especially “The Women I Don’t Know,” which flirts with and redetermines “The Women I Know”), or the absurdist “Not Titled,” a prose poem about, yes, a biblical rain of tacos. I hold a soft spot for the poem “Pregnant Crooked Horse,” having unwittingly inspired the title (long story), if not the subject matter, and so I feel like I have slighted it. I’d also like to discuss whether or not it was wise to have ended the collection on the title story, a strong poem which turns out to be deliciously less surreal than its name suggests, or whether it would have been better to end with another “Autobiography” poem, thus giving the collection a cleaner symmetry.

But I fear taxing the reader’s patience on a book he may never read. The good news is that the author is working on a new collection, one that he claims will be even darker and more alcohol-drenched. Until then I’ll leave you with my favorite poem in the collection, which sums up the entire history of literary friendships (the existence of which are, in fact, at least partially responsible for the writing of this review). Hopefully it will be enough to convince you that the underground of American poetry is alive and well – in fact, often more fully alive than the more heralded surface.

Upon Hearing Liakos Read From Another City While We Were Both Drunk

If you don’t keep that one
I will throw something at you.

It will be heavy,
and possibly wet.

It will be, most definitely,
something close and large.

It will be an object symbolizing
my obstructive frustration.

It will pass by your head,
grazing your cheek-skin.

It will remember you to
the sharks of your past.

It will recall the conquerable
people that made both of us.

It will punish you to leave a
contrail or convex or context.

I do not know much else about it
except that it will smash on the floor.

It will leave a mark on the ground
where I didn’t want it to.

I didn’t want it, I never ever did,
and it will crash, waking roommates.

You will look and we will laugh
but you gotta keep that one.

You’ve got to, got to—because
there is only one envelope left.

It will shatter next to the only envelope
left in the entire universe forever.

[Note: if you are interested in receiving a free electronic copy of this collection, email Jeff Laughlin at I will post details about his follow-up collection as they become available.]

Let x, by Chad Simpson

Let x

by Chad Simpson

Let x equal the moment just after he tells her he’s starting a club for people who know something about computers.

It is summer, 1984, and this is their grade school playground. She is idling on a swing over a patch of scuffed earth. He stands just off to the side, one hand on the chain of the swing next to hers.

Let y equal her laughter. Her laughter sounds like a prank phone call at three a.m. It sounds a little evil.

She throws her head back, and even though he is hearing the y of her laughter in the wake of that moment x, he can’t stop staring at her hair. He can’t believe how black, how shiny, how perfect it is.

She stands up out of the swing and asks, “What do you know about computers?”

It is 1984. Nobody at this elementary school—or in Monmouth, Illinois, in general—knows all that much about computers.

Let z equal the face he makes. The face is not a reaction to her question but to her laughter.

He was trying to impress her with this computer club. He knows she is smarter than he is. He knows that she was, in fact, smarter than everyone in the entire fifth grade, and that next year, when they start pre-algebra, she will be the smartest person in the sixth grade, too.

He can’t help the z of his face. He feels humiliated. His ears are tiny fires, and her hair and face, both of which he finds beautiful, has always found beautiful, are beginning to blur together. She has stopped laughing, but he can still hear the ghost of it as he searches for a variable that might make it as if none of this ever happened.

In a moment she will step closer to him, recognizing in some way his humiliation, and wanting to make him feel better, but he will think she is about to say or do something even worse than she has already done, and he will misinterpret her gesture. When she gets close to him, he will kick her in the stomach—harder than he has ever kicked anyone.

He will regret this before she even begins to cry. She will double over, gasping for breath, and look up at him with dry eyes, and he will know that the hurt he has just inflicted upon her is at least equal to but probably greater than the hurt caused to him by the y of her laughter.

He will feel terrible, and he will immediately think back to x, the variable that started this whole rotten equation.

Let x equal not the moment just after he tells her about the computer club, but the moment just before it.

Let x be his saying nothing about this club and instead telling her something he’s always wanted to say.

Let x be a different gesture altogether. Something honest. Tender.

Let x.

Chad Simpson‘s stories have appeared in many magazines and journals, including McSweeney’s, Orion, and The Sun. He lives in Monmouth, IL, and teaches fiction writing and literature at Knox College. The above story originally appeared in Esquire and is available in his recent chapbook, Phantoms. It is reprinted here by permission of the author. For more info, visit Chad’s website here.

“How To” by Aaron Burch

How To

by Aaron Burch

Remember the myth of looking directly into the sun. The milk cartons cut into a makeshift periscope. Remember your brothers and sisters having to turn away, their eyes too weak. Forget their fall, the push, the fact that that was the last time you saw them. Look up to the sun and ask if your strength is a gift or a curse. Push up, out of your nest, and fly toward it, past the caladrius, feeling for a brief moment a kinship you’ve missed, you’ve thought was gone, you’ve thought wasn’t possible. Feel the heat burn away your outer layer, as if a film had built up over time and you hadn’t even noticed, then tuck and fall. Plummet. Past the caladrius again, past others trying to follow its ascent, and crash into the water. Feel new, cleansed, reborn.


Aaron Burch‘s chapbook of short shorts and prose poems, HOW TO TAKE YOURSELF APART, HOW TO MAKE YOURSELF ANEW (from which the above work is taken), is due out in January from PANK. A novella, How to Predict the Weather, is due later in 2010 from Keyhole Books, and he edits HOBART. The work above was originally published in Sleeping Fish and is reprinted by permission of the author.