No by Ocean Vuong
Yesyes Books, 2013; 27 pp
Reviewed by Analicia Sotelo


Ocean Vuong’s No is a collection of elegies about a boy who died too soon. In these poems, narrative is naked, a coming-of-age relationship between two young men who look for peace among torment. In “Homewrecker,” love is built from destruction, but it only brings more destruction:

                                                & this is how we loved:
a fifth of vodka & an afternoon in the attic, your fingers

through my hair—my hair a wildfire. We covered
our ears & your father’s tantrum turned

to 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 (9)

Even if love could burn freely, the rest of the world is full of a violence that doesn’t make sense, as in “Some Words Reflected in a Mirror,” where the young man’s suicide and a report of children gunned down in Afghanistan conflate in the speaker’s mind: “i want to find a gun / and change myself / he said…and I think: shouldn’t it be gunned up? / i wanted to believe the bullet / in a child / becomes an angel-seed (2). The line breaks in “Some Words” conflate so that we, too, feel the claustrophobic ignorance of his classmate’s response: “ocean you have an edge / your friend died plus / you’re asian” (2).

For Vuong, death holds more power than poetry, which is why he recalls Dickinson (“hope is a feathered thing / that dies / in the Lord’s mouth”) and William Carlos Williams (“maybe this is just to say / that I found the gun / and changed / the world instead”) (20, 2). In “Aubade That Won’t,” the privacy of snowfields is not enough. Neither is poetry: “the aubade left to rot into afternoon / you write the poem but you’re still / thirsty the trees / barely palpable” (7). Vuong is not afraid to say No to poetry and to use it at the same time as his only defense against the violence of forgetting—a family’s rejection, mass child death, “another man leaving / into my throat” (19). No is Vuong’s refusal to become insular, to write poetry that is alive with the pain of others:

no you wrote the poem to become

            the snow
to enter him
            the way death enters—slowly
and without a trace. (8)