I remember seeing Burnings first on Amazon with its incredibly provocative cover, which I would later find out was created by Ashley Blazawski and seems to depict a man in extreme pain, crying out in anguish with bright orange and red colors framing his face. The cover reminds me of a contemporary version of Munch’s famous painting, The Scream, but put into the context of Ocean Vuong’s scintillating debut chapbook, Burnings, the piece is clearly a nod to the Vietnam War period and its aftermath (see also the reply below for its cover's clear analog related to the famous photograph of Kim Phuc). Vuong attempts to explore both issues of ethnicity and of sexuality. What I find formally interesting is that the chapbook is broken into two sections. The first nods most specifically to issues of heritage and ancestry, with the lyric speaker facing a difficult acculturation as a refugee and the desire to know more about the Vietnam War. Given his status as someone who did not live through the war, but nevertheless experiences its aftermath, the lyric speaker must mediate that period through fragments told to him by relatives and parents and through existing representations. For instance, “The Photo,” “Song of My Mothers,” and “My Mother Remembers Her Mother” all explore periods prior to the lyric speaker’s personal experiences. In “Returning to the City of Birth,” the lyric speaker provides us with the disorientation that he experiences upon traveling to the land of his ethnic heritage: “In this city of which I know only/ from what is lost, from this flag, that flag,/ flags burnings, helicopters, people clinging/ to helicopters, in this city whose name/ written in blood’s dialect, I search/ the faces for my own and I find/ those familiar gods” (18).
Section II opens with an epigraph from Mark Doty and we know we’re in for a major thematic change, as the lyrics speak to queer sexuality and religious faith. In this respect, his work reminds me so much of Timothy Liu. In “Revelation,” the lyric speaker divulges “As I tasted myself inside your mouth,/ the breath’s warm blooming,/ as those fig leaves lay torn by our feet,/ somewhere, someone was beginning to sing” (26). In “Revelation,” we do get the sense of a world being torn asunder, but being born anew as the queer subject emerges into a stronger sense of sexuality. At the same time, the lyric speaker’s trepidation is apparent in this Biblical reference, as we might say the “fig leaves” reveal that something is “torn,” perhaps irreparably. If the title references on level the bombing and destruction connected to war, the second section reminds us of the biblical reference to hell, the queer subject’s fear of being reduced to ashes in the fiery maw brought to him by his supposed sexual profanities.
We’re “all in” for Burnings and thrive in its poetic conflagrations; let’s hope Vuong’s full-length collection comes out soon!
Buy the Book Here:
Also, check out the other offerings of Sibling Rivalry Press (based out of the South):