Introduction by Ben Lerner
Oceans and roses are surely among the most shopworn images in poetry, as Ocean Vuong is well aware: “I place your finger on a flower so / familiar it’s almost synthetic.” In this poem, however, Rose is not only the English name of the speaker’s mother, Hong, but a metaphor for displacement: from Vietnamese to English, and from speech to writing, since this is a poem addressed to a mother who cannot read it. The rose is no longer Shakespeare’s (or whoever’s) symbol of fleeting beauty. Instead, “like something ruptured / by a bullet,” the rose is a wound or, later, the open mouth of the infant Ocean. We’ve been told that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, but Hong, who has become Rose as a result of a colonial war, knows that a name must “bear the scent of its corpses.”
Part of the power of this poem derives from its eloquent ambivalence about its own power. A book seems to open like a door, only to shut like a coffin lid. The poet admits that he imposes the significance he hopes to discover in the zigzagging patterns of ants. In lieu of action, vacillation: “I put in the fish sauce I take out / the fish sauce.” Other voices discourage him: “stop writing / about your mother they said.” And so on. Vuong’s compelling mixture of determination and doubt shapes the form of the poem, which combines a strict stanzaic pattern with heavily enjambed lines, one meaning dissolving into another across the margins like the “linear / fish-spine dissolved by time” in the sauce that Rose prepares. The fish sauce is Rose’s art and, like Ocean’s, it both preserves and destroys, transforms and crushes — a composition that depends on decomposition: “these words these / insects anchovies bullets salvaged / & exiled by art.”
I first met Ocean Vuong when he passed through one of my undergraduate classes at Brooklyn College. My pedagogic strategy was to recommend books and quickly get out of the way. His first collection, Night Sky with Exit Wounds, was published by Copper Canyon Press in 2016 and won the Whiting Award and the Forward Prize, among other honors. “Dear Rose” is from a manuscript in progress. Vuong began teaching at the University of Massachusetts Amherst this fall.