My vision for this column is for it to showcase poetry from around the world to let people see the beautiful and important work poets are doing in our time. This means I will mostly show contemporary poetry, but there may also be poems from the past if I find them particularly relevant or beneficial to show at a certain time. Being an arts column in English, all the poems I show will be in English, but some may have been translated from other languages. I will try to show originals alongside the translations if possible. As English speakers I find that we so often forget about or ignore literature in other languages. To counter this, I hope to show that beautiful work is being done in other languages and that by reading that work we can gain deeper insight into our common humanity.
For my first post, I want to show you one of my absolute favorite poems from one of my absolute favorite poets, Ocean Vuong. This poem is titled “Seventh Circle of Earth.” Read it below:
The first thing to note is the background information underneath the title. This poem concerns itself with the murder and death of these two people, a gay couple, in their home. The next thing to note is the form of the poem. It is written mostly as footnotes in the bottom of the page, with its corresponding numbers strewn about the white space above. You can read Vuong’s explanation for doing this here. As he says, in dealing with the weight of this murder, the poem had to be faithful to the result of it, the erasure of the living. The speaker of the poem could no longer exist front and center, where our eyes go first, in the midst of the page. They could now only be an afterthought, tucked away, heard secondhand. Therefore, the speaker is placed within the footnotes, where our eyes land after seeing the numbers falling through the white space.
This speaker is the next point of the poem, specifically that there is only one speaker, not two. The reader hears the perspective of one of the victims as they address their lover and partner while torches stream through their window. The speaker knows what is coming to them, but they are prepared anyway: “As if my finger, / tracing your collarbone / behind closed doors, / was enough / to erase myself. To forget / we built this house knowing / it won’t last.” Being queer, they have lived their lives only able to be who they are behind closed doors. They know that what they built together cannot last, yet the speaker finds humor and comfort in their situation anyway: “It’s funny. I always knew / I’d be warmest beside / my man.” The humor the speaker finds works more like a coping mechanism than making light of the situation. Throughout the poem they repeat to their partner, “don’t laugh,” because their laughter will disappear, be “ashed / to air,” and more important in their final moments is to hear each other, to “Speak – / until your voice is nothing / but the crackle / of charred bones.” After all, they are being erased, and in their final moments they want to be heard. They also want to remind each other, and thus the reader is reminded, of who they are: “Look how happy we are / to be no one / & still / American.” They are not “no one,” only made that way by the act of their erasure. What remains, however, is the fact that they are American. This is the link to their common humanity with the rest of us that Vuong chooses to end with, and there could be many reasons for this. The point is not simply that they are American, but they are undeniably part of a society that refuses to acknowledge their humanity and lets them be erased and relegated to the footnotes.
There is much more that can be said about this poem, but I will leave it at that. I will likely revisit Ocean Vuong’s work in the future, so if you like this poem stay tuned!