Not Even This by Ocean Vuong
I used to be a fag now I’m a checkbox.
The pen tip jabbed in my back, I feel the mark of progress.
I will not dance alone in the municipal graveyard at midnight, blasting sad
songs on my phone, for nothing.
I promise you, I was here. I felt things that made death so large it was
indistinguishable from air—and I went on destroying inside it like wind in
The way Lil Peep says I’ll be back in the mornin’ when you know how it ends.
The way I kept dancing when the song was over, because it freed me.
The way the streetlight blinks once, before waking up for its night shift, like
The way we look up and whisper sorry to each other, the boy and I, when
When there’s always teeth, on purpose.
When I threw myself into gravity and made it work. Ha.
I made it out by the skin of my griefs.
I used to be a fag now I’m lit. Ha.
Once, at a party set on a rooftop in Brooklyn for an “artsy vibe,” a young
woman said, sipping her drink, You’re so lucky. You’re gay plus you get to
write about war and stuff. I’m just white. [Pause.] I got nothing. [Laughter,
Unlike feelings, blood gets realer when you feel it.
Because everyone knows yellow pain, pressed into American letters, turns
Our sorrow Midas-touched. Napalm with a rainbow afterglow.
I’m trying to be real but it costs too much.
They say the Earth spins and that’s why we fall but everyone knows it’s the
It’s been proven difficult to dance to machine gun fire.
Still, my people made a rhythm this way. A way.
My people, so still, in the photographs, as corpses.
My failure was that I got used to it. I looked at us, mangled under the TIME
photographer’s shadow, and stopped thinking, Get up, get up.
I saw the graveyard steam in the pinkish dawn and knew the dead were still
If they come for me, take me home take me out.
What if it wasn’t the crash that made me, but the debris?
What if it was meant this way: the mother, the lexicon, the line of cocaine on
the mohawked boy’s collarbone in an East Village sublet in 2007?
What’s wrong with me, Doc? There must be a pill for this.
Too late—these words already shrapnel in your brain.
Impossible in high school, I am now the ultimate linebacker. I plow through
the page, making a path for you, dear reader, going nowhere.
Because the fairy tales were right. You’ll need magic to make it out of here.
Long ago, in another life, on an Amtrak through Iowa, I saw, for a few blurred
seconds, a man standing in the middle of a field of winter grass, hands at his
side, back to me, all of him stopped there save for his hair scraped by low
When the countryside resumed its wash of gray wheat, tractors, gutted
barns, black sycamores in herdless pastures, I started to cry. I put my copy
of Didion’s The White Album down and folded a new dark around my head.
The woman beside me stroked my back saying, in a Midwestern accent that
wobbled with tenderness, Go on son. You get that out now. No shame in
breakin’ open. You get that out and I’ll fetch us some tea. Which made me
lose it even more.
She came back with Lipton in paper cups, her eyes nowhere blue and there.
She was silent all the way to Missoula, where she got off and said, patting my
knee, God is good. God is good.
I can say it was beautiful now, my harm, because it belonged to no one else.
To be a dam for damage. My shittiness will not enter the world, I thought,
and quickly became my own hero.
Do you know how many hours I’ve wasted watching straight boys play video
Time is a mother.
Lest we forget, a morgue is also a community center.
In my language, the one I recall now only by closing my eyes, the word for
love is Yêu.
And the word for weakness is Yếu.
How you say what you mean changes what you say.
Some call this prayer. I call it watch your mouth.
When they zipped my mother in a body bag I whispered: Rose, get out of there.
Your plants are dying.
Enough is enough.
Body, doorway that you are, be more than what I’ll pass through.
Stillness. That’s what it was.
The man in the field in the red sweater, he was so still he became, somehow,
more true, like a knife wound in a landscape painting.
Like him, I caved.
I caved and decided it will be joy from now on. Then everything opened. The
lights blazed around me into a white weather
and I was lifted, wet and bloody, out of my mother, screaming
© 2020 Ocean Vuong. Today’s poem was first published in the April 2020 issue of Poetry.
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