When I lift my chin, slightly westward, from where I sit working, I see a handmade sign. It speaks to me now, in this time that often feels like being on a catamaran on the wide open blueness with no land in sight. The poster was made crudely and quickly because the words on it, decontextualized from Ocean Vuong’s poetry collection Night Sky With Exit Wounds, are all that matter. “If you must know anything, know that you were born because no one else is coming.” The original text ends on “was coming”, but the words I want to look at every day do not. That one tweak brings a sense of honest futility to the line. I need it, because self-valour cannot help me any more than sorrow can.
“No one is coming,” a close friend who resurrected her life this year also said once, about herself. It is true for me too, and maybe even for you.
Vuong is not a poet from some previous century. He is young, feted, and uses Instagram. There, he took the time to respond at length, on the Story feature, to a query about using metaphors in poetry. Except, he may have gotten metaphors and similes somewhat confused. This resulted in a slew of disproportionately antagonistic posts about him on Twitter, a platform he doesn’t even use.
There, the poet Phillip B Williams candidly pointed out the covert reasons for this furore: “No one yet has been brave enough to say ‘I am sick of hearing Ocean’s name, reading his poems, seeing him win shit, and reading his quotes everywhere.’ Because that, my friends, is called being mean. So you hide it behind posts about craft or fairness or whatever.”
Envy and entitlement driving the belief that one has the moral or professional higher ground is more common than you’d think. It happens all the time, and cowardly attackers push others into casting stones as well. Their joy in bringing someone else down will invariably be short-lived, however. What they truly want is to have attention, and unable to create anything of value that draws it to them, they manufacture a spectacle instead.
To quote from the novelist Alexander Chee’s post: “I keep thinking about how in a year Ocean is going to get asked for a blurb by the people who did this metaphor crap.” When it suits the spectacle-starters to ingratiate themselves, they always do. When condemnation magnetises more mileage, they do that instead.
The attacks on Vuong caught my eye not only because I use his words daily to corral my broken heart into a shape I can live with. I noticed and kept thinking about them because they were the perfect example of a scarcity of goodwill in human engagements, both with those personally known and those recognised only by name or work.
Life may be arbitrarily cruel, but people are not. We get to choose malice or kindness, over and over. It says so much that somehow, the same knowledge settles into so many: that there’s no one coming, no one else in the world, as populous and polyphonic as it is.
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on November 26th 2020. “The Venus Flytrap” appears in Chennai’s City Express supplement.