Congratulations to Ocean Vuong, 2014 recipient of a Ruth Lilly Poetry Fellowship. Read "Ode to Masturbation" and "Into the Breach" below. 

I met Ocean Vuong through the poems he read one night at Manhattan’s Bureau of General Services–Queer Division. While Vuong’s words struck me as delicate, even simple, their impact was gut-clenching, soul-piercing. His lines are like careful calipers opening us, each to each, as he bears out a heaviness meant not to hold us down but to unveil the magma underlying the presumption of life: just as light is both particle and wave, or as the human body is composed of more microbes than human cells, that which animates isn’t just one thing, it isn’t simply a life force—it is also decay. We are elements in motion that are not-us.

Vuong distills ideas. We steep in them. This is one way to open the world. Digging down in the dirt of it reveals that the heat emitted by rot is the engine of living’s mechanisms. “Ode to Masturbation” exemplifies a sensual unearthing that permits us slow-motion glances at the currents at work, holding us together as political (“lips like money / laramie jasper / & sanford towns”), desirous (“every rib / humming / the desperation / of unstruck / piano keys”), historical (“hard facts / gathering / the memory of rust”), spiritual (“the lord cut you / here / to remind us / where he came from”), and elemental (“you scrape the salt / off the cunt-cock / & call it / daylight”). We are nothing if not everything resonating, distant and unified by distance, the primordial soup of Vuong’s cum shot as “an articulation / of chewed stars.” This type of blasphemy illuminates “the if under every / utterance” that will save us from our certainties and enable us toward what we thought was elsewhere in the universe—like the light of dead stars emerging from ourselves.

—Amy King

Ode to Masturbation

because you
     were never holy
only beautiful
to be found
     with a hook
in your mouth
     water shook
like sparks
     as they pulled
you up
     & sometimes

your hand
     is all you have
to hold
to this world
     because it’s

the sound
     not the prayer
that enters
     the thunder not
the lightning
     that wakes you

in lonely midnight
     sheets holy
water smeared
     between your thighs
where no man
     ever drowned

from too much
     thirst & when
is the cumshot not
     an articulation
of chewed stars
     go ahead—lift

the sugar-
     crusted thumb
& teach
     the tongue
of unbridled

to be lost in
     an image
is to find within it
     a door so close
your eyes

     & open reach

down with every rib
the desperation
     of unstruck
piano keys

     some call this being

human some call this
     walking but
you already know
     it’s the briefest form
of flight yes even
     the saints

remember this
     the if under every
the breath brimmed
     like cherry blossoms

foaming into no one’s
how often these lines
     resemble claw marks
of your brothers
     being dragged

away from you
     you whose name
not heard
     by the ear
but the smallest bones
    in the graves you

who ignite the april air
     with all your petals’
here here here who
     twist through

barbedwired light
     despite knowing

how color beckons
i reach down
     looking for you
in american dirt
     in towns with names

like hope
success & sweet
      lips like money
laramie jasper
      & sanford towns

whose trees know
     the weight of history
can bend their branches
     to breaking
lines whose roots burrow
     through stones

& hard facts
the memory of rust
      & iron
      & amethyst yes

touch yourself
      like this part
the softest wound’s
      after all

the lord cut you
to remind us

      where he came from
pin this antlered
     body back

to earth
      cry out

until the dark fluents
     each faceless
beast banished
     from the ark

as you scrape the salt
      off the cunt-cock
& call it

      be afraid

to be this
to be so bright
      & empty
the bullets pass
      right through

they have reached
     the sky
as you press
     your hand

to a blood-warm
like a word

      being nailed
to its meaning
     & lives


Into the Breach

The only motive that there ever was was to . . . . keep them with me as long as possible, even if it meant just keeping a part of them.
                                                                                                            —Jeffrey Dahmer
I pull into the field, cut the engine.
It’s simple: I just don’t know
how to love a man
gently. Tenderness
a thing to be beaten
into. Fireflies strung
through sapphired dusk.           
You’re so quiet you’re almost
The body made soft
to keep us
from loneliness.
You said that
as if the car was filling
with river water.
Don’t worry.
There’s no water.
Only your eyes
My tongue
in the crux of your chest.
Little black hairs
like the legs
of vanished insects.
I never wanted
the flesh.
How it never fails
to fail
so accurately.
But what if I broke through
the skin’s thin page
& found the heart
not the size of a fist
but your mouth opening
to the width
of Jerusalem. What then?
What hunger submits
to no border. To love
                                    another man
                                    is to leave no one behind
to forgive me.
                                    I want to leave
                                    no one behind.
To keep
& be kept.
The way a field
turns its secrets
into peonies.
The way light
keeps its shadow
by swallowing it.