For, dear me, why abandon a belief
Merely because it ceases to be true?
Cling to it long enough, and not a doubt
It will turn true again, for so it goes.
Most of the change we think we see in life
Is due to truths being in and out of favour.
Robert Frost, “The Black Cottage”
Being a diarist most of my life, I began dabbling in journaling at ages before I could properly write between lines. Not so much an unerring habit—such as the spectacular fortitude of esteem diarist Anaïs Nin—the life of my diary is nothing like that of the sun, unyielding and burning, but more like that of the moon; constant, only in that it has its phases, waxing and waning throughout the seasons.
Years moving in and out of written existence, slivers of letters and notes that roll into decades of overflowing journals; tickets and newspaper clippings and bottle caps and torn poems glued and shoved inside. Then—for little reason other than the cycle—a big nothing, for weeks or months, sometimes years at a time. Immediate then, with a crack, the light comes back, and it all starts again. As of current, I have been journaling near daily since 2015.
Some nights I have little to say; others seem to have me skating downhill where I will write seven pages or more. When I was younger, I never considered my diary for what it was: my past. Those pages were seen as the refuge for thoughts unflushed, dreams dreamt, actions unlived; for accomplishments still going, for failures seeming without end; for matters that happened like bombs and burned everything into dirt, page and pen taking on the utility of dustpan and broom. It wasn’t until my later years, and the journals and letters started to stack up, that I began to understand; understand the profound amount of idle work that goes into a life, and the world-shifting events that grow from that mundanity, like a forest on a mountainside.
Sudden, it happens: you have a past. More than that, it is surprisingly large. It spills over the desk, it takes up the whole bottom bookshelf; it collects dust in the musty chest by the door, it falls all over you when you’re trying to pull free a reference volume out the back of the closet; it begins to seize space, both outside and in; your mind get sticky in lethologica, you keep having to move boxes around to make it all fit; you might consider, in fact, getting rid of it all, until you realize that there is nothing that can be rid. It all happened, all of it, and it’s all comprised in you. Who knew a 33 year old, 5’7”, 120 pound woman could fit so much. You start to be in awe of it, in perpetual astonishment of living and time. Being a diarist is a wonderful kind of sorcery—the past made manifest, all those failed and successful templates of you given lungs to breathe, teeth to eat, eyes to see. Those past selves intermingle, they overlap, they talk behind your back—it’s a kind wilderness. Darwinism and mysticism and cartography and art. There is, amazingly, so so much, even in the little life.
So, one day, you throw the philosophy of identity out the window, because it ceases to make sense, and you make a place for a new philosophy, and you lucidly call it “self”. Somedays, it is simply “me”. Other days you don’t call it anything at all, but merely feel it, like a tender kiss on a wound.
For birthday number 33, my friend (of 33 years, a sister really) sent me On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong. Since then, I have not been able to stop remembering things, some things I had never even written down. But others I’d find, lodged in a middle-page, rolled like a scroll in a drawer. Vuong’s novel, built on confession and poetry, brought me to the vast shores of my own memory. And, as experienced, it was gorgeous.
When I first started writing, I hated myself for being so uncertain, about images, clauses, ideas, even the pen or journal I used. Everything I wrote began with maybe and perhaps and ended with I think or I believe. But my doubt is everywhere, Ma. Even when I know something to be true as bone I fear the knowledge will dissolve, will not, despite my writing it, stay real. I’m breaking us apart again so that I might carry us somewhere else–where, exactly, I’m not sure. Just as I don’t know what to call you–White, Asian, orphan, American, mother?
Sometimes we are given only two choices. While doing research, I read an article from an 1884 El Paso Daily Times, which reported that a white railroad worker was on trial for the murder of an unnamed Chinese man. The case was ultimately dismissed. The judge, Roy Bean, cited that Texas law, while prohibiting the murder of human beings, defined a human only as White, African American, or Mexican. The nameless yellow body was not considered human because it did not fit in a slot on a piece of paper. Sometimes you are erased before you are given the choice of stating who you are.
I first read Ocean Vuong back in 2018 when I read his collection Night Sky with Exit Wounds by Copper Canyon. An exciting new poet, Vuong’s verses played with a gentle sorrow and a steady, delicate vulnerability, and I was looking forward to his next collection of poetry. It was a pleasant surprise, when I learned upon the arrival of my friend’s package in the mail, that he had written a novel instead. Happy surprise, but also, sober trepidation. To be frank, when poets decide to become novelists, as a reader, I’ve come to find it usually doesn’t go very well. The ability to hold onto the thread of progressional narrative that a novel requires (or, at its best requires) usually isn’t what the poet excels at. The poet excels in the swing, launching from one extreme to another, making far reaching connections and maintaining an emotive voice that rises above events and makes way into a greater truth. The novelist, on the other hand, must maintain a sense of balance, and preserve a formula of logic that can shoot straight like an arrow from a bow and hit its intended mark. (Or, if multiple threads are being juggled, marks.) The poet doesn’t prioritize landing upon any goal or intent; the poet merely bleeds out all over the floor. Once bled, the pool fully formed, a reader can come to gaze at the reflective images cast. Poets and novels, for some reason, rarely make good bedfellows. (Strange, that it’s not so consistent vice-versa.)
So here I was holding Ocean Vuong’s first novel in my hands and going, “Aaaaaaaah,” and, tepidly, I began the first chapter, and read those first words, Let me begin again. Dear Ma,
And full-stop. Right there, I made an executive decision, and that decision was that On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous was not a novel, and I shouldn’t read it as such. Throw genre out the window; Ocean Vuong was a poet, and you can take the words out of a poet but you can’t take the poet out of the words. So I read Ocean Vuong’s book under that umbrella, and now, finished with Vuong’s pages, I can say, wholeheartedly, I think it was the right choice. For in suspending the criteria of what makes a good novel allowed me to encounter the work beyond the eye of critique, and what Vuong’s work truly seems to express is the dilemma of the philosopher’s qualia; the singular experience of being inside a specific moment in time, and the inevitable corruption of that experience by way of time proceeding from it and its transmutation into memory.
Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous leads a reader through a series of immersive contact. Through incredibly sensory-specific prose, a reader knows the musk of the hay, the coarseness of a boy’s arm hair, the aroma of an empty beer bottle, the willowy strand of wind on a nape. What is not so clearly rendered, is the emotions ever present yet fragile throughout Vuong’s penning. Is it remorse or bittersweetness? Is it love or understanding? Is it anger or sadness? Told in first person narrative, by way of a young man, Little Dog, writing a letter to his mother, Vuong’s story is less a story and more a journey of reminiscence. “Outside, the leaves fell, fat and wet as dirty money, across the windows,” “I remember the walls curling like a canvas as the fire blazed,” and “Ma. You once told me that memory is a choice. But if you were god, you’d know it’s a flood.” While reading, I was constantly caught and flung into my own memories; the scent of cedar in the wooden playground, the jitters of my first job, riding on handlebars down roads in the dark, snow inside my mitten, sirens whirring, my shivers.
Traveling through difficult subjects, such as race, class, sexuality, war and trauma, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is a gallery of memories. Not just memories of our protagonist, Little Dog, but also of his mother’s, his grandmother’s, and his father’s, memories relayed and digested and re-relayed in splinters of sequences. The writing quietly questions, What changes during all this passing? It is a retrospective painting of pure blue, cut up and then put back together. Does every piece need to be placed exactly as it was for it to be that same blue? Can such a blue ever be again after the cutting? This is the philosopher’s qualia, and Vuong’s mosaic suggests that perhaps painting and cutting up blue is just the inevitability of feeling and rearranging in time. Specifics fall to the wayside. Certainty is an emotion felt, and not a fact of matter. While reading, a surrender can happen, and one accepts the stream of consciousness of the work.
Another element of Ocean Vuong’s novel is that of arrival and departure. Life has us move in and out of lives, in and out of places, in and out of emotions, in and out of knowledge, in and out of truth. Much like my diary, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous reminded me of the phasing within living, and how what is real as stone one day becomes dust the next. It is not repetition, but wheeling forward in persistent fashion; of being on top or bottom, in front or behind patterns with time, but the road races up forever new. A mixture of sameness and utter originality; what could remain completely untouched through all this barreling? Not much, it would seem. I would say not a thing at all.
I once read that memory is an old woman who hoards colored rags and throws away food. The nature of being can sometimes seem a delusional act. We shift inside ourselves, and sometimes, seem to fly out of our bodies like ghosts. Many would say memory is what holds us—I, the person—together, and that without we would crumble; others seem to think entirely in the future, to leave the past in the past and harbor no doubts nor regrets about what has been, and that each event gone only means you have a bright white page unwritten on to look forward to. But these are merely postures, are they not? Very few open their eyes underwater without goggles. How can we see clearly, without the light shining there? I want to say Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is a letter to the past, but in its heart, Vuong’s novel knows that no such address exists; Vuong sends the letter out to be delivered into memory, and it is received, only to be altered by the state.
For about two weeks, I have flipped through my journals, that all put together make my diary. It has been enlightening, falling upon a date, and saying “Oh, I remember that day,” only to be corrected that I barely remember it at all. Other times, my memory is frightening in its accuracy, giving the impression that I could nail a game show or succeed as some sort of wizard of recall. But all these events, poured onto the page, are not merely files to be pulled and so inserted back in; they are all with me, every moment of every second of my life since their occurrence. We do not grow out of old skins, like snakes, and slip them off. It is an evolution, and each rotation brings another wave of substance that dissolves into us. On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous speaks to this.
Read Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, not as a novel, but as a color that was once a different shade of blue. But, if we hang on long enough, might it become pure blue again?
In our hearts we’ll say, That’s it. That’s my blue.
Five out of five stars for Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous.