“Telemachus” – Ocean Vuong

Image: Shipwreck, posted at Flickr by bibliojojo under a Creative Commons License.

I keep returning to “Telemachus”. I’ve written about it for Novel Niche before, and normally that would be enough, only the poem keeps cresting over me. You know when you think you can anticipate a wave? Even as a strong swimmer, there are bound to be waves that will surmount you, other than the opposite. In this brief, lungful offering from Ocean Vuong, I never make it all the way back to shore.

We’ll never be free of our fathers. The poem, by its manifested actions, could be summarized in one line: a son drags his father from the sea. He scans him with love and with fear, for signs of life. The world around them has changed: “Because the city / beyond the shore is no longer / where we left it. Because the bombed / cathedral is now a cathedral / of trees.” The urgency of the poem is as ecological as it is anything else: with brevity and with pain, the poet maps the liquefied, shifting landscape surrounding these two men. How does the world around you look in, when you are cradling your might-be-dead father in your own waterlogged arms? What happens when you cannot save the man who, with more certainty than the face of God, is the creator of your image?

“Telemachus” does for me what, if one could swim, a cross-Atlantic foray in the wide sargasso might do for a diver from the future. It covers great distance at the speed of sound, untrenching intimacies, deep-mining for lustrous secrets, breathing with the gills of glowing discovery. And it ends how a drowning begins, with the son taking in the death, the sins, the life of the father. Ouroboratic and endless as wakes breaking on a beach where rescues are made, this poem is the language of resuscitation.

Read “Telemachus” here.
Ocean Vuong’s first collection of poems, Night Sky with Exit Wounds, won the 2017 T.S. Eliot Prize, and the 2017 Felix Dennis Prize for Best First Collection.

This is the eleventh installment of Here for the Unicorn Blood, a Queer POC Poetry Reader which runs from June 1 – June 30. Historically, June commemorates the 1969 Stonewall Riots, heralded as the birth of the modern LGBTQ+ rights movement in the United States. #PrideMonth’s global significance, its unabashed celebration of queerness, its marshalling of non-heteronormative joy, resistance and tenacity, motivates this close reading series, which specifically engages the work of POC Queer Poets, in international space. People of colour have been vital to queerness before queerness had a name: this is one way to witness that, to embed my reading practice in it, and to raise my brown, queer fist in yes.


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