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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