Friday, July 01, 2016

Threshold by Ocean Vuong


In the body, where everything has a price,
                I was a beggar. On my knees,

I watched, through the keyhole, not
              the man showering, but the rain

falling through him: guitar strings snapping
             over his globed shoulders.

He was singing, which is why
            I remember it. His voice—

it filled me to the core
           like a skeleton. Even my name

knelt down inside me, asking
          to be spared.

He was singing. It is all I remember.
         For in the body, where everything has a price,

I was alive. I didn’t know
         there was a better reason.

That one morning, my father would stop
          —a dark colt paused in downpour—”

“& listen for my clutched breath
         behind the door. I didn’t know the cost

of entering a song—was to lose
        your way back.

So I entered. So I lost.
        I lost it all with my eyes

wide open.

From “Night Sky with Exit Wounds.” Copper Canyon Press, 2016 

Ocean Vuong is a recently discovered American Vietnamese poet. He's written about with a sense of awe and respect by the New Yorker recently. I'm not going to tell you more about him; you can always Google him and read the article online. The latest update is that the poetry arm of UK publisher Cape has snatched him up and has dubbed him an important new voice.

This is the first poem in his new collection "Night Sky with Exit Wounds".

From the title alone, without reading through the poem, one wouldn't be able to imagine what threshold it is talking about. As it turns out, that word could point to the bottom of a doorway into a room. And it could also imply the beginning or entry point into something, a phase perhaps.

The first line, about the body, will be repeated, with a little variation in the preposition used, halfway down the poem, and it will signal some turning point in the boy's journey into this threshold. We can safely hazard a guess that this body belongs to a young boy in the beginning of puberty. His is a body not yet in its full "value", as he still lacks what the line says is a "price". And the boy wants, like a beggar,  his body to attain a more substantial form. 

Like a beggar, he gets down on his knees and tries to look through a keyhole, to spy on a man showering. Because of the confined view, he can only catch streams of water falling onto a rounded shoulder. In spite of this he still manages to attain an emotional intensity, as evidenced by his seeing the water as rain not falling onto the man but into him. The streams are so taut, they are like guitar strings snapping. This rendering is offered here instead of something lewd or pornographic, like the boy's member becoming as taut or tensed while spying. 

And again, the boy cannot take in much through a keyhole. Which is why he can only recall the sounds, rather than the body, especially the man's singing. And the man's voice can fill the boy right down to the centre of his being, without the boy having to catch sight of the man's entire body, merely a sliver of his shoulder. 

As we already know, the boy is kneeling on the floor. And if he also brings his name, something voiced, down to knee level, and he is asking to be spared from some kind of pain, it implies a climax akin to the death throes of pleasure. And I'm guessing this is his threshold to a new and adult experience. 

At this point the boy recalls only the voice singing. The phrase "He was singing" gets repeated, without any variation, unlike the other first line, which is repeated in the next line. And the turning point here is the boy's body has attained a "price", though not a physical fullness. And that is when he comes alive to this new experience. 

We then learn that this man the boy has been spying on in the mornings is the father. One morning the man realises there is someone behind his door holding his breath. 

The boy is still talking about value, and this time he enters the threshold, towards the singing. He tells us in this beginning of his journey into adulthood, he gets taken into a path he is willing to be lost in. In the language of the erotic, this is the point of no return. And he ventures with eyes open, so that he can now, at last, take in the full view of his first naked man.

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Sunday, August 24, 2014


Text by Leon Wing
Poem by Samantha Wynne-Rhydderch


before water filled the open lung
of the baby grand.

This little poem is a haiku comprising 17 syllables, no matter the stress patterns, if any. Normally the lines would be cut into three parts, with a 5-7-5 number of syllables a line. Most of the time you 'd associate a haiku with serene and beautiful images of nature or some poignant experience.  

But as you can tell from reading this piece here that the first line only goes up to 3 syllables. The remaining two are brought down to the middle line, totalling the second line to 9 syllables. The last line never wavers from the normal 5 syllables.

If you happen to know something about reading music, you'd know that a cadence is made up of two chords usually found at the end of a piece of music. It can be applied to signal the end of the piece of music. 

And the cadence, or rather more than one of which, used in this poem signals the end of an event or passage. The line above doesn't say if it is an imperfect or perfect cadence. Usually if imperfect, it indicates that the sound wants to keep going in order to finish the music. If perfect, it means the sound is finishing the music. 

Whether perfect or imperfect, the cadence in the poem will still signal some kind of ending, of life, or of more than one life as implied by the plurality of the word.

The sudden and unexpected cutting of the line after just three syllables instead of the normal five indicates a sudden and precipitate cadence, a sudden interruption of its playing a song, some kind of sudden and unexpected event. And in this case, it is the crashing of an iceberg on the ship Titanic.

Instead of telling or showing us the drowning of the ship's unfortunate passengers and crew, the second and last lines take on the metaphoric image of a baby grand piano with its opened lid like an open lung, filling in with water.

'Titanic' is taken from Not In These Shoes by Samantha Wynne-Rhydderch.

Samantha Wynne-Rhydderch's collections include Rockclimbing in Silk (Seren, 2001), Not in These Shoes (Picador, 2008) and Banjo (Picador, 2012). She was shortlisted twice for Wales Book of the Year. She received a Hawthornden Fellowship. She  won a Leverhulme writer in residence award in 2012 to collaborate with the National Wool Museum, with Rack Press putting out Lime & Winter in 2014. that same year in June she was poet in residence at the Dylan Thomas Boathouse. Literature Wales has awarded her a bursary to research and write her next collection. 

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Saturday, August 16, 2014

Bodybuilders Contest

Text by Leon Wing
Poem by Wisława Szymborska

Bodybuilders Contest 

From scalp to sole, all muscles in slow motion. 
The ocean of his torso drips with lotion. 
The king of all is he who preens and wrestles
with sinews twisted into monstrous pretzels. 

Onstage, he grapples with a grizzly bear 
the deadlier for not really being there. 
Three unseen panthers are in turn laid low,
each with one smoothly choreographed blow. 

He grunts while showing his poses and paces. 
His back alone has twenty different faces. 
The mammoth fist he raises as he wins 
is tribute to the force of vitamins. 

This amusing poem by Maria Wisława Anna Szymborska is a translation from the Polish. Whoever did this translation performed a superlative job of transposing the sing song rhythm, with regular unstress and stress patterns, ending each pair of lines with a rhyme.

This poem shows up the ridiculousness of these bodybuilding competitions, where monstrously muscled men preen around onstage, covered in oil, the better to show off those "monstrous pretzels" of muscles. They have to act or go through these routines which look as if they are grappling with a bear or beating off panthers in slow motion. This monstrosity is compounded by backs having different faces and a mammoth fist. The humour and mockery are heightened at the end of the poem, when the ending line praises the force - not the benefits - of vitamins.

Every line in this poem is in pentameter, with five beats or feet. In order to sustain this regular beat, when reading this following stanza, for instance, you have to read a normally unstressed word or syllable as a beat, or have to promote an unstress, as in IN. And if a normally stressed word or syllable happens to fall in the place of an unstressed position, you have to do the reverse, to demote the stress, as in "slow". 

And this sort of thing is happening in most of the lines. But if you insist on reading in a normal manner, like in actual speech, you will lose the rhythm, thus depriving the humour, mockery and sarcasm in the descriptions.

From SCALP  to SOLE, all MUScles IN slow MOtion. 
The Ocean OF his TORso DRIPS with LOtion. 
The KING of ALL is HE who PREENS and WREStles
with SInews TWISted INto MONstrous PRETzels. 


About Maria Wisława Anna Szymborska [qviˈswava ʂɨmˈbɔrska] : A Polish poet, essayist and translator, she was born in 2 July 1923  and died in 1 February 2012. She won the 1996 Nobel Prize in Literature for "poetry that with ironic precision allows the historical and biological context to come to light in fragments of human reality". Her countrymen called her the "Mozart of Poetry".  She even sells more books than other famous prose authors, and is translated into English, European languages, Arabic, Hebrew, Japanese and Chinese.

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Thursday, August 14, 2014

The Whole World Gets Together and Gangbangs a Deer

Text by Leon Wing
Poem by Patricia Lockwood

The Whole World Gets Together and Gangbangs a Deer

Bambi is fresh from the countryside. Bambi is fresh
and we want him on film. He doesn’t even know
how to kiss yet. “Lean in and part your lips,” we say, ...

This very short piece here is an excerpt from a much longer poem taken from a new collection "Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals" by Patricia Lockwood. This collection is the second from this young American poet, and her first for Penguin Books.

Even with just only three lines on show here, they look on the surface to be just a simple poem, a weird and incomprehensible one at that, about a countryside deer named Bambi, whom the whole world wants to put in a movie, a virgin who hasn't kissed before and who has to be taught how to (up to this point).

One could imagine the poet penning it in a dash, quickly and without any second thoughts over form or method. Well, you would think so, wouldn't you, with a title that doesn't look as though it means anything deeply poetic but is merely a shock tactic? These three lines alone will give you an indication of how the rest of the poem will read; and if so, you could easily just skim through the poem, thinking nothing much of it, and quickly turn to the next poem, without looking beneath the words, their significance. 

That deer in the title is Bambi, like that innocent deer character of the same name in the Disney cartoon. As Bambi is an animal, this hints at the term for a new recruit into an industry, the so called "fresh meat". Based on the sexual innuendo of the long title, it wouldn't be off the mark to guess at the sex industry, where you might come across some porn star named Bambi.   "fresh from the countryside" hints at the innocence and inexperience of someone entering the big bad world of the city. The name Bambi, in this case, applies so well here, as it is imbued with the sense of innocence as well as sexuality.

There is a purpose to the repetition of "Bambi is fresh", bounding the first line on opposite ends. Even though the rather long title is really quite telling, and it is very clear it is all about some violent act of sex, this is the only place where the poet says this explicitly. She doesn't do that inside the body of the poem, the stanza. Instead she utilises the repetition of those three words to allow a sense the insistence of the "bam" sound to mimick the violent wham banging act of sex. 

Besides those repeated plosives, you will also find a number of sibilant sounds in "fresh from", "..side" and, again, "fresh". Straddling these sounds is a solitary guttural "c" in country, and its stressed beat here rhymes with the unseen rude word for the female privates.

At the first line you think Bambi is some female character, but reading on to this second line that contains toned down or softened nasals and aspirants, you are surprised  - or confused - to learn that she is a "him".  But why a female name for a male? This could be hinting at some cross dressing, transgender or even gay element, who knows. And the sentence after the full stop underpins or confirms his innocence, his not knowing how to perform something. An enjambment happens at this point, to create a tension: What does he not know how to do?  The following line reveals that it is something as fundamental and as requisite to the sex act as a kiss.

This third and last line has a lot of softer sounds, making the harder ones like "kiss" and "part" stand out. "Kiss", with a hard and sharp guttural, reminds us of the unseen rudeness implicit in "country". The plosive in "part" is also hard and pointing back to the softer plosive of "Bambi", like a final part of an act, like an orgasm. Following the hard "p" in "part", the remaining sounds in "your lips,” we say, ..." go soft. And this acts like the relaxation after that orgasm.

I'm afraid I must only parse this poem up to the above three lines. If I take on the entire poem, this posting could run on and on, to several hundred words and more. If you really want to continue reading the rest of it, get Lockwood's book at the links below.


About Patricia Lockwood: She invented the "sext" poetic form and is notorious for her Twitter poems, gaining the title Poet Laureate of Twitter. In 2013 her prose poem "Rape Joke" went viral and gained the attention of The Guardian, who said it "casually reawakened a generation's interest in poetry." and of The Poetry Foundation who declared her poem "world famous."  She got into The Best American Poetry 2014 and won a Pushcart Prize.

Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals is available from Google Play BooksAmazon,and Kobo.

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Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Tag

Text by Leon Wing
Poem by Ciaran Carson


round your wrist
bore a number

your name
and D.O.B.

two weeks after
two stone less

the day you
came home it

slipped off
no need to snip


Whose wrist is it the tag is around? Who is the poet talking to, directly, who is having a tag around ‘your’ wrist? Normally anybody having such a tag around his/her wrist might be a child, or a baby. This might be the kind of tag one would find most of the time in a hospital, perhaps in a maternity ward.

This short poem is made up of mostly inchoate lines of seemingly unfinished constructions. In so far as they are sentences, they do not follow the normal convention of capitalising the first letter of the starting word in a sentence. Neither do they end the sentence with a full stop. Also absent are punctuation marks separating a succession of items, like for “a number, your name and D.O.B.”

This is because the person who has this tag around his/her – “your” – wrist is such an inchoate being, that we’re not told of its gender, even. It is so immediately recent in existence that it only has a number and a name – but still nameless to us – and date of birth that is not even fully spelt out (“D.O.B.”) or has no specific date revealed.

The line with “bore a number” is rather telling. Pertaining to birth, the word “bore” would mean one bears, or bore, a child. However, in this case it is not a child but a number, something cold and not even specific – which number?- is borne.

The only specificity, in the third stanza, is the number of weeks and the weight that the child lost: two. The placing of “after” and “less” at the end of the two lines in this stanza underpins the moving forward of a life and the cramping of it. The mirroring of those two words and of “two”, sitting opposite them, adumbrates this movement and expiration of life as a cycle.

The penultimate stanza has lines which should have been a parents’ celebration of new life if they were in another context other than in this one. The last line in this stanza has a very poignant, and powerful, run-off, when “it” enjambes down to the first line of the last stanza which begins with “slipped”. The baby’s tag slipped off, and so has the baby's short two-week life. The tag did this so effortlessly because of the weight the baby lost, that there is no need to snip it off, as there was that necessity, when the child was born, to snip off the cord connecting him to the placenta.


The Tag by Ciaran Carson first appeared in the February 15, 2010 issue of The New Yorker.

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Thursday, January 28, 2010

Not Knowing Why

Text by Leon Wing
Poem by Ann Struthers

Not Knowing Why

Adolescent white pelicans squawk, rustle, flap their wings,
lift off in a ragged spiral at imaginary danger.
What danger on this island in the middle
of Marble Lake? They’re off to feel
the lift of wind under their iridescent wings,
because they were born to fly,
because they have nothing else to do,
because wind and water are their elements,
their Bach, their Homer, Shakespeare,
and Spielberg. They wheel over the lake,
the little farms, the tourist village with their camera eyes.

In autumn something urges
them toward Texas marshes. They follow
their appetites and instincts, unlike the small beetles
creeping along geometric roads, going toward small boxes,
toward lives as narrow or as wide as the pond,
as glistening or as gray as the sky.
They do not know why. They fly, they fly.


Why do animals do the things they do, really?  Not being human they do not have any agenda nor reasons for their actions, do they?  Well, they just do, is all. 

And why do the movies, and movie makers like Spielberg, endow animals with human characteristics?  So that humans watching can relate or make a connection when watching them in the film?

Which is why in the first line even the poet imbues the pelicans flying off from the island in Marble Lake with human qualities, as if they are really some adolescents, like our human equivalents. But these feathered adolescents are not very graceful, at the beginning. They “squawk, rustle, flap” and then “lift off in a ragged spiral at imaginary danger”.

The balking at the end of “squawk” tells us how akward their take-off is. As they gain height, they become less so, as “rustle” tells us.  Then “flap” and “lift”, with their l sounds, tell us they’re off and flying smoothly now. Or are they, with “ragged spiral at imaginary danger”:  danger./What danger?

After this question mark, the pelicans continue their flight smoothly.  And the reader can feel this unruffleness, reading the soft and lulling r’s, f’s, l’s and w’s in “They’re off to feel/the lift of wind under their iridescent wings”.

The three “because”s bring us humans down back to earth, to realize why these pelicans fly so.  At the break, after “Spielberg”, with a full-stop, like a cut-to in a film, we see them fly, effortlessly, again, reading the repeating of the  w’s, l’s and f consonants and the long vowels in “They wheel over the lake,/the little farms”. “little” , followed, a word later, by a comma marks the sight of the tourist village from a bird’s eye view.

The second stanza explains more about why the birds fly away, even when there is no danger. The explanation: none, really; besides just hunger and animal instincts, just like the ground-moving animals. 

The last two lines are a symphony of rhymes: possible off-rhymes in "gray" and "sky"; full rhymes in "they", "they", "they", and "sky", "why", "fly", "fly".  They simulate the many birds up in the sky, flying.

They just fly, is all. 


This poem first appeared in the Coe Review, Vol. 39, no. 1, in 2008.

Recent work of Ann Struthers:
What You Try to Tame, The Coe Review Press, 2004

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Monday, December 07, 2009

A Christmas Poem

Text by Leon Wing
Poem by Wendy Cope

A Christmas Poem

At Christmas little children sing and merry bells jingle,
The cold winter air makes our hands and faces tingle
And happy families go to church and cheerily they mingle
And the whole business is unbelievably dreadful, if you're single.


It's December and it’s more than two weeks away till Christmas.  What more germane than to have a Chrismassy poem in here.  For this, I have taken A Christmas Poem, aptly titled, from Wendy Cope’s collection Two Cures For Love.

Just like the bells that jangle and jingle in rhythm, this poem rhymes at the end of lines, at end stops.  There are no enjambements for Cope to work on here. Also, this kind of rhyming is preponderant in most of the poems in her collection. Here, when it is utilized it works particularly well.

At the start the rhythm is regular and uplifting:

At Christmas little children sing and merry bells jingle,

… till you reach jingle, when there is a reversal of the rhythm, from uplifting to a downward lilt.  There is an imperceptible jolt in this disruption, but the import of jingle hides this.  The lines, by rights grammatically, should have ended at the end of the line with a full-stop. But, no, merriment seems to be carrying on still, to the next line, even if there has been an end-stopping, heavily at that, underpinned by a comma.

But, does it? The string of short vowels in line one, with the exception of ‘At’ and ‘and merry bells’, is taken over with a heavy ‘The cold’; very foreboding, this, as you’ll see at the last line. The rhythm also breaks the regularity here, at first, in the first half of the line. But after that the remaining half carries on in regularity: ‘our hands and faces tingle’.

Beneath the happiness of the third line, we get ready for what is to come in the last line.
‘church’ and ‘cheerily’ is alliterative of ‘Christmas’; as traditionally this season is all church and midnight mass and cheer afterwards. Keep in mind the fricative of ‘families’, because the plurality of families contrasts sharply with the singularity of being alone. And, this is ‘dreadful’.  ‘Whole’ rhymes neatly with ‘cold’, to remind us of the utter coldness of being single. Cope marks this dreadfulness with the second comma of the poem, with a poignant pause and another reminder of this dreadfulness with the fricative of ‘if’.

The rhyming works so well here: There is jingle and tingle, and people and families mingle, but not if you’re single.

Merry Christmas, everyone.


Find out more about Wendy Cope and her collection Two Cures for Love

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