Ocean Vuong, “The Prodigal Son’s Lament”

Today for your reading pleasure, a poem by Ocean Vuong, whose first chapbook, Burnings, is now out on Sibling Rivalry Press.


Father, after I told you I made love
__with my name smeared across
____another man’s lips, I began to burn

slowly in the spaces untouched
__by your voice. For years, I reached for you
____through letters returned unopened,

now yellowing at the edges. They say
__you’re somewhere in California, trying
____to force your name into another woman’s womb.

Everyday, I carry the weight of your refusal
__down the dusty road of memory, to a room
____where belt lashes licked my back

into raw cords of manhood, my mouth singed
__with blood as I bit the tongue you gave me.
____Why, as I lie beside the man I will marry,

does the body ache for your hands?
__Why does it rage through insomniac nights
____itching for the threads of your voice

to strangle the songs of morning birds?
__Father, I want to be bad again.
____The things I would give, the bodies

I would refuse, to feel your knuckles
__relearn the curve of my cheek, split skin
____into crimson fissures, to smell your sweat

as you break my bones—anything
__to come as close as we were
____when you held your battered boy

in your arms and whispered something
__like forgiveness. I do not regret you.
____Even if you tell them

your first son played with fire
__and burned into a dark vestige
____in the distance,

you cannot forget
__my finger sliding into your palm
____as we braved the clean sunlight

for ice cream, my back still tender
__with your gift of love and mercy.
____If we do not speak or touch

again, or when your mouth
__can no longer twist into the shape
____of my name, when I am nothing

but ash on your tongue,
__I will never leave you. After all, father,
____it is almost a promise

that what we will always have
__is something
________________we lost.


Born in 1988 in Saigon, Vietnam, OCEAN VUONG is the author of Burnings (Sibling Rivalry Press) and is currently an undergraduate at Brooklyn College, CUNY. His poems have received an Academy of American Poets Prize, the Beatrice Dubin Rose Award, the Connecticut Poetry Society’s Al Savard Award, as well as four Pushcart Prize nominations. He lives in Brooklyn and is an avid supporter of animal rights and veganism. More at www.oceanvuong.blogspot.com.

“The Prodigal Son’s Lament” was first published in PANK magazine (June 2010). It appears here with permission.