Convergences of Poetry and Prose: In the Light of Ocean Vuong and Michael Steinberg

Book cover for On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous

I was in the Florida Keys, reading the poet Ocean Vuong’s genre-blurring novel, On Earth We Are Briefly Gorgeous, off my Kindle when the first social media posting of Michael Steinberg’s death appeared in my Earthlink. Michael, writer and founding editor of the literary journal, The Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction, and I had just emailed each other a couple months before because, as all the beautiful tributes to Michael’s generosity attest to, he had kindly agreed to write a blurb for my upcoming book, Slow Arrow: Unearthing the Frail Children, despite his upcoming eye surgery, asking only that I send my manuscript in large script. I did not realize then how serious his eye condition was, nor to what discovery it would, so sadly, so soon, lead.  

But even before I heard about Michael’s death, Vuong’s novel, a soaring and lyrical tour de force about Little Dog and his family of refugees from Vietnam, had me thinking about the convergence of poetry and prose and what Michael had written to me a few years ago when I asked him to be part of an AWP presentation on the lyric essay.

The essay (and/or memoir), Michael wrote, is the story of one’s thinking, the revelation of consciousness. Except for those essayists who reflexively use poetic elements and   language in their work, these are missing from most of the MFA work I’m seeing—even the very good ones.

 Michael’s words articulated for me what I could feel was missing in some of my MFA students’ creative nonfiction work: that craft of poetry that so often leads to the most beautiful and revelatory memoir-writing.

Reading On Earth We Are Briefly Gorgeous, even the title resplendent with poetry, I realized how much this novel/memoir/poem that Vuong describes as “grounded in truth but realized by the imagination,” could teach my students about the graces of poetry in creative nonfiction.

“Poets have been there,” Vuong says in his recent profile in Poets and Writers, “and thrived with the sentence and the paragraph.”

First, most simply, I would tell my students, there is the utter beauty of imagery to “show the world new,” a maxim taught about poetry even to children: “The crickets ignited across the low shifting grass around the barn.  Turning to him, I felt their serrated legs through the floor beneath us as I said his name, full and long; I said it so quiet the syllables never survived my mouth. I drew closer, toward the wet salted heat of his cheek.” How do we separate now the pulsing of love from the pulsing of cricket?

Second, the juxtaposition of image with image can sometimes fire into being emotion and thought we can only intuit (and, here, too, because I know I could not help myself from saying, what Miller and Paola in Tell it Slant calls “Gathering the Threads of History,” the beautiful weaving of the personal and public self) :

It was the summer of 2003, which meant Bush had already declared war on Iraq, citing weapons of mass destruction that never materialized, when the Black Eyed Peas’ “Where is the Love?” played on every radio station but especially on PWR 98.6, and you could hear the song from nearly every car on the block if you slept with the windows pen, its beats punctuated by the sound of beer bottles bursting on the basketball court across the street, the crackheads lobbying empties up in the sky, just to see how the streetlights make broken things seem touched by magic. . .

Do you see how the singular world of the self can show itself to be a morass of the incongruent, of the fantastical, the undefinable?

And, third, I would show my students what Vuong teaches us most thoroughly, most beautifully, the use of metaphor– vehicle of that “revelation of consciousness” that Michael understood was most essential, so often missing, from the prose of the essay and the memoir.  On Earth We Are Briefly Gorgeous is awash in metaphor, but here are two small examples among so many.

The bullies on a school bus, finally gone, who have slapped Little Dog into speaking English—“That’s a good little bitch,” they say–Little Dog stares at the flashing shoes his mother bought him, kicking them until they “erupted with silent flares: the world’s smallest ambulances, going nowhere.” End of scene. Metaphor in its singular precision.

And, next, the extended metaphor: hardest, best. Vuong weaves monarch butterflies throughout the story of Little Dog’s mother, wounded refugee from Vietnam: the female monarch butterfly flying south, dispersing eggs, which will burst into future generations of butterflies that will only make the return trip the mother began.

“Even history has more than one thread, each thread a story of division,” Vuong writes, the image of the monarchs culminating in their “fleeing not winter but  the napalm clouds of [the mother’s] childhood in Vietnam . . . like debris that kept blowing, for thousands of miles” so that “you can no longer fathom the explosion they came from, only a family of butterflies floating in clean, cool air, their wings finally, after so many conflagrations, fireproof.”

Sometimes, I think, even in Florida, sitting in a fair breeze gone cold, at the cusp of a canal where manatee wallow, you can find an intersection of truth: grace and grief, poetry and prose conjoined.

“I’m not a journalist,” Vuong says. “I’m an artist.”

Michael Steinberg, writer, friend, mentor, truth-teller to so many, affirmed, in so many ways, once more.

2 thoughts on “Convergences of Poetry and Prose: In the Light of Ocean Vuong and Michael Steinberg

  1. In this essay as elsewhere in Kathy’s work, I find “broken things touched by magic.” Here she celebrates and illuminates Vuong’s novel, inspiring me to begin reading it tomorrow no matter where I have to go to get a copy of the book, while simultaneously inspiring me to read more Kathy Winograd, here (in these other earlier poignant and powerful entries) and wherever else we can find her. See how this is an essay about the novel, is an elegy for Michael Steinberg, and is a tutorial on writing essays that rise to the level Steinberg achieved (and fostered)? This essay exemplifies what she is illuminating. I know the publication of her next book isn’t till March; I wish I didn’t have to wait for it.

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