In keeping this blog, something I’ve noticed is that the most resonant works of literature do not restrict themselves to a single topic, but rather create a world that skirts as many subjects as our own lives. Ocean Vuong’s poem “Notebook Fragments” is indubitably one such work, especially because it is composed of what Kierkegaard might call “philosophical crumbs,” only ever so loosely linked in a stream of consciousness style. Yet, Vuong goes farther than just encompassing an array of issues, intertwining that which we usually consider antithetical; death and sex, vitality and sadness, love and loneliness all converge in the strange meeting place that is his poem. Hence, the images of mortality in the poem are also images of life. Vuong recounts his dream of a deceased companion not as a morbid experience, but rather writes, “I dreamed I walked all the way to your house in the snow…and you were still alive. There was even the shade of sunrise inside your window.” Meanwhile, blossoming daffodils that mark the start of spring are juxtaposed against Vuong’s grandmother recounting, “In the war they would grab a baby, a soldier at each ankle, and pull.” This uncomfortable intermixing of life’s beginning and end is repeated in Vuong’s poignant equation of his own existence: “An American soldier fucked a Vietnamese farmgirl. Thus my mother exists. Thus I exist. Thus no bombs=no family=no me.”
The poet addresses these emotional paradoxes by posing the cutting rhetorical question, “How come depression makes me feel more alive?” This query contains a truth that is as beautiful as it is painful, that death has a unique power to remind us to love. To love our friends and family members; upon waking from a nightmare, Vuong “went to kiss grandma on the forehead/just in case.” To love sexually, despite all the problems* that come with that. But more than anything, death is a reminder to love life itself, just as it was given to us. “Here,” Vuong concludes his poem, “That’s all I wanted to be. I promise.” And maybe that’s the only thing we all want to be, here, in the few moments that we pass through this earth.
(Snow, Dash. Gimme Head Till I’m Dead. 2007. Private Collection; Vuong, Ocean. “Notebook Fragments.” Night Sky With Exit Wounds. Port Townsend: Copper Canyon, 2016. 68-72. Print.)
*A refrain of the latter half of the poem is the author saying, “I met a man,” and always regretting that he did. Vuong suggests that though we look to it as a counter to morality, sex is just as much of a void as death and trying to overcome your fear of dying through copulation is like trying to fill a hole with emptiness. In fact, Vuong portrays sex as the ultimate revealer of human fragility; describing one of men he meets, he says, “his scrotum a bruised fruit. I kissed it lightly, the way one might kiss a grenade.”