In the February 2014 issue of Poetry, poets dig into cities. Troy Jollimore’s “Homer” describes the excavation of a Trojan stadium. In “The Archaeologists,” Julia Shipley depicts the discovery of millions of old pins below a section of Manhattan “worked over / by women who / mended between / appointments.” And Jamaal May and Ocean Vuong probe Detroit and the former Saigon, sharing intricate accounts that match the complexities of the cities themselves.
The beleaguered speaker in May’s poem, “There Are Birds Here,” is in dialogue with listeners who aren’t listening particularly well. When he tries to correct their false impressions of Detroit, they seem bent on misunderstanding both his city and his words:
There are birds here,so many birds hereis what I was trying to say when they said those birds were metaphorsfor what is trappedbetween buildingsand buildings. No.
Those birds are actual birds, he asserts, no mere poetic flight of fancy. Similarly, when he describes a girl tearing bread like confetti, he means literal confetti—“not the confetti / a tank can make of a building.” And a boy’s neighborhood, he adds, “is not like a war zone.” At first, May’s lines read almost as an anti-poem, a suite of rejected metaphors, an assertion of what things are not like. He concludes:
I am trying to sayhis neighborhoodis as tattered and featheredas anything else,as shadow pierced by sunand light partedby shadow-dance as anything else,but they won’t stop sayinghow lovely the ruins,how ruined the lovelychildren must be in that birdless city.
Rather than continuing to spurn metaphors, May proposes an enveloping simile: the neighborhood is like everything else in the world, and like everything it offers a mix of qualities—it’s tattered and feathered; it’s shadowed and lit. But he hasn’t managed to convince his doubters, who continue to pity the children languishing on bird-free streets. What’s the effect of completing the poem in the voice of his interlocutors? Does it suggest that they’ve drowned out the speaker and taken over the poem, claiming the last word for themselves? Does it highlight their stubbornness, making their arguments seem weaker?
In “Aubade with Burning City,” Ocean Vuong takes us to Saigon, South Vietnam, in the thick of Operation Frequent Wind—the evacuation of American civilians and Vietnamese refugees during the Fall of Saigon. Just as May asserts the reality of birds in a city some consider blighted, Vuong insists on loveliness despite the odds: in his poem, an erotic scene unfolds in a hotel room even as fighting breaks out on the streets.
Vuong begins with an ambiguous image: “Milkflower petals on the street / like pieces of a girl’s dress.” Does the torn dress signify romance or violence—love or war? The poem repeatedly blurs those opposing elements, and unites its dual narratives through linked images. The woman in the hotel room accepts a sip of champagne while, outside, a soldier spits out a cigarette. Her lover’s hand is “running the hem / of her white dress,” and later, the radio says “run run run.” Vuong describes the single candle in the lovers’ room, with their shadows appearing as two wicks; later, horrifyingly, a nun catches flame.
All the while, Vuong captures another startling juxtaposition—one borrowed straight from history. Armed Forces Radio played Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas” as its code to initiate the evacuation, and the song matches this moment in Saigon about as well as a love scene matches a burning nun: it celebrates Christmas during the Vietnamese spring and describes peace in a time of war. Vuong highlights such disjunctures:
The treetops glisten and children listen, the chief of policefacedown in a pool of Coca-Cola.A palm-sized photo of his father soakingbeside his left ear.
Berlin’s sugary lyric yields to a shocking image. Children are hardly listening: instead, the dead police chief lies with a photo of his father beside his ear—a child who cannot listen posed next to a father who cannot speak. Why does Vuong place the chief in a pool of Coca-Cola? Perhaps the drink seems as sweet, bubbly, and banally American as the Christmas song.
Vuong’s poem, too, is a kind of song, and at moments it seems to fuse with Berlin’s:
A white ... A white ... I’m dreaming of a curtain of snowfalling from her shoulders.Snow crackling against the window. Snow shreddedwith gunfire. Red sky.Snow on the tanks rolling over the city walls.A helicopter lifting the living just out of reach.The city so white it is ready for ink.
In the first line, Berlin’s dream of a white Christmas seems to merge with Vuong’s fantasy of a love scene, and the Christmas snow melts into the white dress his imagined woman wears. Then Vuong visualizes snow falling over Saigon—a metaphor for the milkflowers (also known as snowdrops) mentioned at the start of the poem, as well as for less benevolent projectiles from the sky. White with forces both ugly and lovely, the city is ready for ink, ready to be written about—just as Detroit, with its mesh of tatters and feathers, calls for a response from Jamaal May.