Poetry, Memory and Redemption in Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous

A page, turning, is a wing lifted with no twin, and therefore, no flight. And yet we are moved.

—Ocean Vuong, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous

Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is written like a poem; its prose is so inundated with poetic devices.

The novel is a love letter to his mother (who is illiterate and may never read it), where he confesses, shares and questions. It is a roadmap for memory, as he brings the reader through his childhood, then adolescent years, the narrative illuminating briefly poignant and also almost insignificant snippets and moments of his life, little curiosities held up to the light before the narrative spotlight shifts away once more.

The novel features four main characters: Ocean himself (who is never mentioned by name; the others call him “Little Dog”), his mother Rose, his grandmother Lan (which means “Lily” in Vietnamese) and his adolescent lover Trevor. The author’s family are immigrants from Vietnam navigating a middle-lower class existence in a predominantly white America. While working a summer job cutting and drying tobacco at a plantation, Vuong meets and falls in love with Trevor.

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, however, is a lot more than just another immigrant-in-America bildungsroman—it is a discovery of self and others; a dissection of the tenuous relationships that hold Vuong and those around him together, tracing the connections that make them up. Again and again, Vuong picks apart the threads that tie him with others, as if testing their strength, their elasticity. The central questions hang in the air between the book’s pages: What makes a relationship? Is it a mother admonishing, and then learning to understand, her child? Is it the stories a grandmother tells? Or is it the confessions and little exposures, the giving of ourselves to another intimately?

A blatant feature of Vuong’s work is its style: the prose’s pervasive—at times desperate—cushioning of every telling and retelling, significant or otherwise—in lush poetry. Other than aesthetic reasons, a part of me wonders if the purpose of such poetry is to soften the blows and impact of a narrative that continually rips itself apart only to continue in the same vein elsewhere; frayed edges spill from this book, its narrative is fragmented and discontinuous.

The novel also offers the reader an unflinching look at the sheer grotesqueness of the human body—of ourselves. Vuong describes in visceral detail his grandmother’s body wasting away as she dies of cancer. In another scene, he vividly presents the messy and painful sex he and Trevor have on the bed and then on a barn floor.

Perhaps the poetic nature of the prose suggests that despite all our repulsiveness—despite the sheer ugliness we find ourselves in, retelling our stories—the only way we can access reality and an event—gives us the grace to beautify ourselves again. A poetic narrative is our redemption; our chance to find ourselves—if only briefly—awash with ephemeral beauty.

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