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Straddling Convention: The Erotic in Asian American Poetry

Ocean Vuong, in search of the “new erotic,” guest-curates a portfolio of poems in time for Valentine’s Day.

By Ocean Vuong


V Unsent E-mail, No. 5

There’s the book I was meant to write
and won’t.  Like my first solitudes, walking 
the fields at our suburbs’ edge.  Tramping onto

a small clearing, a fire’s remnants.  Washed 
out photos in black and white, men and boys 
naked, wrestling with each other.  Sucking 

each other.  All that’s easier.  Not mine.  And yet
this hot tropical light came crashing down,
so thick I could guzzle it.  Like the belief

I’d never have a lover.  That each women
in this alien story, not knowing these characters
or where she was, well, what could she 

possibly see in my face lying beside her?
And so
I sat in my room, alone, in a house that wasn’t.

At night walked through rooms enduring
car lights from the road, sliding the wall.
And a woman somewhere else sleeping.

I played piano.  The radiator hissed.  Highlighted
long tomes with dialectics and delusions,
exiles and bibliophiles, serial killers, 

samurai films.  All the while someone was
screaming, nights like Duras’s Vice Counsul
in the Shalimar Gardens.  Who shot up dogs, 

beggars, lepers.  White colonials.  Weeping
over the stunning Anne Marie Strether. 
Sometimes I wish 

I wasn’t Oriental.  Or, less quaintly, Asiatic.
My plain Midwestern origins, provincial Char Bovary.
Recent years I’ve written little.  Friends

dwindled, as if I’ve moved elsewhere.  I’ve
left the howling of dogs, Christ on the cross,
shoppers in downtown Hiroshima.  A rice ball

carbonized to black seeds.  Ash.  Zyclon.  Zones.
An open book is also night.  Why fight it?
As if clothes of mourning were simply for widows.

As if the Old Testaments got it right.
Duras: Destroy, she said.  
                               The silence begins—  
I can never have you.  That is what I want.

(From The Last Incantations, Northwestern University Press 2013)

David Mura has written three books of poetry, After We Lost Our Way, The Colors of Desire, and Angels for the Burning. His new poetry volume, The Last Incantations, will be published in the fall 2013 by Northwestern University Press. His latest work was the novel, Famous Suicides of the Japanese Empire. He’s also written two memoirs, Turning Japanese: Memoirs of a Sansei and Where the Body Meets Memory: An Odyssey of Race, Sexuality & Identity, a book of criticism, Song for Uncle Tom, Tonto & Mr. Moto: Poetry and Identity, and the chapbook, A Male Grief: Notes on Pornography & Addiction. He teaches at the Stonecoast MFA program and the VONA writers’ conference.