The Weight of Our Living: On Hope, Fire Escapes, and Visible Desperation

By

Surely it is a privilege to approach the end
still believing in something.

—Louise Glück

*

There should be tears. There should be a reason. It’s 7:34 p.m. on New Year’s Eve. I am lying in my kitchen in Astoria, New York, my cheek pressed to the cold tiles. My mother has just called. My child, she says in Vietnamese, her voice barely a gasp, your uncle has killed himself. Hearing the words actually come from her mouth, she immediately starts wailing into the phone. I open my eyes and see only the blue and yellow tiles on the kitchen floor. Little blue flowers on tiny sun-lit fields. When did I fall? Is that my voice? I didn’t know it could sound like that: like an animal that just learned the word for God. The cell phone lies open beside me. I can hear my mother—now hysterical—sobbing skylinethrough the crackling receiver. I reach for it. She is pleading for me to come home. And I can. I can take the bus or the train from Penn Station and be in Hartford before midnight—but I won’t. I can’t. Instead, I tell her the trains aren’t working. That I will find a way home in the morning. In my shock I am selfish. I hang up. I go for a walk. And I keep walking, passing people decked in glitter, plastic top hats, and glasses with “2013” across their eyes, shuffling to the myriad bars or parties to drink and welcome the new year. I walk until I end up in Brooklyn—near midnight, by the East River. My fingers and snot-brightened lips numb from cold and grief. Fireworks unravel across the New York skyline, coloring the black water with shredded light as I stand in the sharp, freshly anointed January air—and scream.

*

I love going on walks by myself. No pressure to keep up conversation. And there is something about movement that helps me think. To charge an idea with the body’s inertia. To carry a feeling through the distance and watch it grow. When I first arrived in New York City I spent most of my time wandering. I was seventeen and wanted to write poems. With a red notebook and a slim volume of Lorca’s verses tucked under my arm, I walked the bright and liquid avenues, not ever bothering to look at street names or even where I was heading. I would start at my friend’s illegal basement-sublet (where I was sleeping on a couch salvaged from the back of a local Salvation Army) in Jamaica, Queens and trek until I ended up in Park Slope, Red Hook, Richmond Hill, or Gowanus, and once—even an abandoned shipyard near Far Rockaway.

During these aimless forays, I kept finding myself looking up—particularly on residential streets lined with anything from monolithic tenements to luxury brownstones. But I also saw, attached to nearly every building, a skeletal structure of architectural finesse equal, in my eyes, to any of the city’s glittering towers. Fire escapes.buildings Not buildings exactly, but accessories. Iron rods fused into vessels of descent—and departure. Some were painted blue or yellow or green, but most were black. Black staircases. I could spend a whole hour sitting across the street from a six-floor walk-up studying the zig-zags that clung to a building filled with so many hidden lives. All that richness and drama sealed away in a fortress whose walls echoed with communication of elemental or exquisite language—and yet only the fire escape, a clinging extremity, inanimate and often rusting, spoke—in its hardened, exiled silence, with the most visible human honesty: We are capable of disaster. And we are scared.

It’s New Year’s Day. I’m standing in my uncle’s home in Hartford. The front door is propped open to air out the small one-bedroom apartment. It’s snowing. Sharp flakes flicker through the doorway and turn to rain on my face. A portion of yellow police tape flaps from the mailbox. I walk into the hallway where my uncle’s body was just removed the night before. For some reason, I thought the police, during their investigation and collection of evidence, would make things presentable for the family. I don’t know why I expected this. Maybe I’ve seen too many crime shows where a seasoned detective would prepare the grieving loved ones with a little speech before ushering the mourners into ground zero, forensics officers stepping gingerly across the rooms. But the police are long gone. And the first thing I see is the chair—sitting right beneath the attic opening where he placed a weight bar across and tied the rope. Next are the belts. Three of them—littered around the chair, all snapped at the buckle and coiled on the hardwood like decapitated snakes. He was determined. My legs grow loose, liquid. My jaw throbbing. I rush into the bathroom and vomit into the sink. As my sixth cup of coffee swirls down the drain I start to feel a wave of incredible sadness fill my bones. In his house, my uncle’s absence is sharpened. The running faucet. The silent rooms. My arms heavy, I kneel at the sink, listening to the water, letting it drown the dull ache in my temples. I open my mouth to speak—but no one’s here to listen. I open my mouth to pray, in earnest, but quickly abandon the endeavor when I hear my mother’s voice outside the house, calling my name. She’s walking up the driveway with a tray of food and a small folding table in her arms. I quickly grab the belts and toss them up into the attic’s dark, opened mouth. I never want to see them again.

My mother comes in and starts placing hot dishes of vegetarian food on the small table. Her hands are shaking. The sound of utensils and glasses knocking into each other. This food is for my uncle. We Vietnamese believe the dead can still be nourished by our offerings and goodwill—even long after their death. She lights a bundle of incense and places a photo of him on the table between a steaming plate of rice and tofu braised in soy sauce and green beans. The picture is the yearbook photo from his senior year in high school. Taken almost ten years ago, it’s still true to his late features. He isn’t smiling, but his lips are parted slightly, as if on the verge of speaking. My mother and I kneel before the makeshift altar and raise the incense to our foreheads. We prostrate. We bow as if the dead, through their growing absence, have suddenly become larger than life. Tell your uncle to eat, she says, looking down at the floor. Uncle, I say, to no one, please eat… We miss you. Please…eat.

*

A hole is nothing
but what remains around it.

—Matt Rasmussen

*

The first fire escape was developed in 1784 by Englishman Daniel Maseres and was designed for personal use. This early model was simple: a rope, attached to a window, was anchored to the ground with a heavy wooden platform from which one could climb down and flee from a burning ledge. However, by the early 21st century, traditional iron fire escapes began to appear in America on the side of residential buildings, reducing the personal fire escape to obsolescence. In its place, a more collective means of escape was issued.

birthday candlesI don’t know why I am thinking of fire escapes after my uncle’s death. Part of me feels suddenly closer to them, that sense of urgency and danger that fire escapes, in their essence, embody. Maybe this is why the collective fire escape has become so popular. Maybe I prefer such visible desperation to exist outside of my home, out of view, out of mind—but always there. While I go on with my daily life, as I sit with friends in front of the TV, our faces blue-washed, or as I place the birthday cake before my little brother’s delighted face, the candles flickering on the teeth of all the smiling guests, while I make love, while I pray, the fire escape lies just a few feet away, dormant, conveniently hidden—but never completely. I gather my notions of terror and push it out the window, where it calcifies into a structure so utilitarian as to be a direct by-product of fear itself.

And yet, as I walked through the neighborhoods of New York, there were always at least one or two fire escapes on each street adorned with flowers, tin bird feeders, herb gardens, pink lanterns, bike racks, even cafe-style chairs and tables. I admired and envied this at act of domestication. Imagine a pair of hands reaching between those cold black bars and placing a pot of lucent April tulips into the sun. Life touching the possibility of its extinguishment. It almost makes me forget what those black bars were intended for. And maybe that’s for the better. Maybe we live easier decorating danger until it becomes an extension of our homes.

*

Ocean, get on. 

I don’t wanna.

Don’t be a pussy.

Why does it have to be pink? 

Cuz that’s the cheapest color. Grandma didn’t have enough after groceries for a boy bike. Are you getting on or not?

But you took off the training wheels.

I know—so we can go faster. 

Okay. 

Come up and sit here, in front…can you fit? 

Yeah.

Ok here we go. Put your feet up. Are you ready solider? 

Siryesir!

Here we go. We’re going! We’re heading into enemy territory!

Ahhhh! Will they shoot us? 

I don’t know! Hang on! Don’t let go of my arms! Don’t let go ok? Your mom will kill me.

Don’t worry! I won’t.

*

My grandmother gave birth to my uncle, Le Duy Phuong, in 1984 when she was nearly 43 years old. The father is unknown, disappeared into the night after leaving a tin of jasmine tea and a few crumpled bills on my grandmother’s nightstand, Ho Chi Minh’s ambivalent face glaring up at her from the creased currency. Three years after my uncle’s birth, I would come into the world at the height of Vietnam’s post-war reconstruction era. Food was scarce. Many families were cutting their rice rations with sawdust. But we would survive, my uncle and I—growing up together, playing together and, eventually, immigrating to America together. I was his shadow in those early days, often accompanying him even into the bathroom, where we would continue our conversations and games as he sat on the toilet. Because even the door, as thin as it was, was for me an unbearable border. A week before his death, we would share one last conversation with each other.

I was in Hartford for the holidays, and we decided to catch up, as we always do when I’m home, over coffee. We drove to a nearby Barnes & Noble and sat in the cafe. Beneath the bright lights I could tell he looked distraught, gaunt, his eyes dark at the edges. I can only manage to eat an apple and drink a bit of water these days, he said. He was “tired of this world” he explained, albeit cryptically. He kept distressing about his failed relationships, his bills, his job at the nail salon. Despite being fluent in English and a high school graduate, customers often assumed, perhaps because of his quiet demeanor, that he was a new immigrant, often speaking about him amongst each other as if he couldn’t understand. Why would he waste his time in college? It’s better to keep doing manicures. He has such strong hands for an Asian. I tried comforting him, fumbling with a quote from James Baldwin but abandoned it mid-sentence when I saw his distant, sunken gaze, as if he was watching a field burning behind me. I reached out to touch his elbow. Hey… Hey, what’s wrong? He kept staring at the field.

*

The thinking
Of you where you are a blank
To be filled

—Mary Jo Bang

*

When someone dies their silence becomes a sort of held note, a key on the piano pressed down for so long it becomes an ache in the ear, a new sonic register from which we start to measure our new, ruptured lives. A white noise. Maybe this is why there is so much music in dying: the funerals, the singing, the hymns, the eulogies. All those sounds crowding the air with what the dead can’t say.

There is the sound of hard drumming now: a wooden mallet knocking against a wooden bowl, a small sharp gong pounded at a rate equal to the heart. A monk in a mustard-colored robe, accompanied by her two white-haired assistants, opens a page of scripture and chants along to the dissonant instruments thrumming through my uncle’s tiny apartment. Everyone’s here. My mother, my aunts, cousins, my uncle’s friends and co-workers. About 20 people crammed into the living room. The couches and various furniture pushed flush against the walls, or stacked on top of one another. We are all kneeling before the makeshift altar. It’s been seven days. A soft, silken mound of ash from hundreds of incense sticks has accumulated in front of my uncle’s photo. More food. Plates of rice and vegetables. More incense. More chanting. We bow when the monk directs us to. We bow in unison, the items of my uncle’s life still scattered all about us: socks, single shoes, green packs of Wrigley’s gum, cigarettes, DVDs fallen from their cases, receipts, bars of chocolate, Levi’s, dress shirts, underwear—much of it disheveled by us, the mourners, trying to make room for ourselves in an empty house. With my finger coiled around the wire of my uncle’s Xbox video game console, I lower my head and listen to the sounds of the Lotus Sutra, my favorite. Its deep droning rises from our collective despair. I let it enter me: a warm constant vibration crowding out that silent note on the piano of the dead. I close my eyes.

In Buddhism, it is believed that when one dies a tragic, emotional, or sudden death, the spirit might not realize it has died at all—and so it’s imperative to remind that person of their present, bodiless state. It is also believed that when the body perishes, one’s hearing ability is heightened, since the spirit becomes more air-like and can therefore hear with its entire being. The monk encourages us to speak to my uncle. My mother, who has been kneeling beside me, now stands. Her hands look like knotted roots. Little brother, her voice quickly cracks into a sort of wail, please listen to big sister. I know you are scared but you must be brave and leave this place. There is nothing left here. Through her tears and strained voice, the Vietnamese language, a language so dependent on subtle inflections and intonations, now sounds otherworldly, warping in her throat from low guttural groans to high, fluctuating whines. Please don’t stay in this house, little brother. Soon, people will move in and you won’t recognize them. Sister will come see you every week at the temple. Sister loves you. Please go and find a way to your next birth. I will see you again in another life. She looks around the room, as if trying to locate him. My hands are numb. I take the hood from my sweatshirt and cover my head, shadowing my face.

We finally start to leave in single file, the monk leading the way, still chanting, her assistants knocking on their instruments. They will head into a van and drive the 35 minutes to the temple where my uncle’s urn will be laid to rest. It will be kept inside a cupboard with other urns until they can be scattered into the Connecticut River on an auspicious day in the Buddhist calendar. I stand behind the procession and am the last to leave. I blow out the candles, snuff the remaining incense, and hurry out, not looking back. I tear off the scrap of police tape fluttering on the mailbox and close the door.

*

Ocean, get on.

I don’t wanna. 

Don’t be a pussy. 

Why does it have to be pink?

Cuz that’s the cheapest color. Grandma didn’t have enough after groceries for a boy bike. Are you getting          on or not?

But you took off the training wheels. 

I know—so we can go faster.

Okay.

Come up and sit here, in front…can you fit?

Yeah… How come we’re not moving? 

We can’t. We’re not supposed to go yet.

What do you mean?

Uncle?

You didn’t save me. You were supposed to save me.

But how—

Where is my face? Who took my face? There’s just a black hole now. 

Uncle, please.

It’s like God’s thumbprint. Right on my face. Here—put your hand to it…it feels like sand.

My arms swing wildly through the dark. As if the dark was something to be torn away. The room suddenly a cage. Everything smaller, everything pressed against my skin. My arms and legs tangled in a web of blankets and sheets, knocking into bedposts, a night stand, chairs, cups of water, clocks, phone cords. I’m on the hardwood. Bare-chested. Wet. Cold. Shuddering. My hands covering my face, fearing he is still there, staring down at me from his pink bicycle—a black oval in his face, sucking in all the light. I look through a crack between my fingers. I see the violet window, a few dull stars over Queens, New York. I get up, walk toward it, and press my forehead to the pane. I look out into the quiet, blue-lit city, my face vanishing in the reflection as the glass steams beneath my breath, softening the orange light that has just come on in an apartment across the courtyard. The sky starting to recede into the grainy grey of another morning. There should be tears.

*

It’s winter in New York. It’s January 8, 2014. It’s been a year. The temperature has been dipping lately and today has plunged to a debilitating 4 degrees. Too cold for a walk. I stand at my window and look across the courtyard. It’s been foggy all morning, the milky whiteness descending so low one of the buildings across the way has vanished completely, leaving only its fire escape—suspended in the air. Like the black bones of some mythical creature fossilized on its way to touch the sky.

fire escape languageI wonder what would happen if I were to bring the fire escape back inside. In fact, what would the fire escape look like if I were to wear it on my person, personality—in public? What would a fire escape sound like if it was imbedded into my daily language—and if I didn’t have to apologize for it? Could this be one reason we create art—one reason we make poems? To say the unsayable? I don’t know—but I’d like to think so. After all, the poem never needs to clear its throat or talk of the weather or explain why it’s here, what it’s looking for. It doesn’t even need its creator to speak. Its importance springs from its willingness to exist outside of practical speech. It possesses no capital yet still insists on being worthy. I come to the poem and it offers me immediate communication with someone’s secret self, a self preserved from the mainstream and its hunger for order through emotional sterilization. “Why, as poets,” says Carl Phillips, “[should we] strip and, thereby make visible, difficulty instead of satisfying the majority of people by veiling it? Because poetry is not only what reminds us that we are human, but helps ensure that we don’t forget what it means to be so.” In this way, the poem is more than paper and words, more than the obscure fiddlings of the high-brow, it is an invitation to a more private, necessary dialogue. I approach it as if climbing the rungs of someone’s fire escape—whether I go up or down is between me, the reader, and the poet. And maybe nothing is burning at all. Maybe we are only up here for the view. But it’s up here that I wonder, at the risk of asking for too much, what if a fire escape can be made into a bridge?

*

Ocean, what do you think you want to be when you grow up?

I want to be a car. 

What?! You can’t be a car; you have to be a human.

Ok. I want to be you. You go fast. Like a car.

*

Boston. July 22, 1975. A large tenement fire breaks out on Marlborough Street. Standing on the building’s fifth floor fire escape, awaiting the fire truck’s rescue ladders, is 19 year-old Diana Bryant and her 2 year-old daughter, Tiare Jones. Before the ladders could reach them, the fire escape collapses. At this moment, Stanley Forman, a photojournalist covering Boston fires, raises his camera from the street, and captures the mother and daughter mid-fall. Bryant would die from her injuries—while Jones, having fallen on top of her mother’s body, would survive. Forman’s photo would go on to win the 1976 Pulitzer Prize for Best News Photography and the title of World Press Photo of the Year.

windowsIn the photo, Bryant is seen falling headfirst. Her daughter, upright, is behind her. Their limbs akimbo and blurred from the pull of gravity. There are potted plants falling alongside them. The iron shards of the collapsed fire escape can be seen hanging jaggedly from the building. It is a photograph of wrenching urgency and terror, one that shows a woman the moment before her death. And I wonder whether the fascination is of death alone—or could it also be the failure of a device meant to prevent death. That one can indeed escape the fire, and still perish through the means of that escape. That the our last notion of safety, the plan B, the just-in-case, has literally fallen apart when we need it most. The picture makes palpable, in a way, what we can’t always say to one another without the risk of “dampening the mood”: I am vulnerable even when I should be safe.

I think of the plotted plants. I think of Diana placing the green lives into fresh soil and putting them out on her fire escape. How happy she must have felt to make her own space a little more beautiful. How I, too, do what I can to make things a little more beautiful (bearable?). I think of the difficulty of talking about collapse in person, face to face. I think of my uncle in the cafe. How blurred he must have felt—free falling like that and not being able to say it. How did we come to live in a culture in which it’s taboo to speak of the unpleasant? Let’s talk about something else, we say, something cheerful. Let’s save this for later, we say. Please, not now, not at the dinner table.

The limits of my language mean the limits of my world, says Wittgenstein. And if we continue to censor our most vital dialogues, our world can only grow smaller. And here, the poem does not necessitate admittance to anyone’s dinner table. It speaks to whomever chooses to listen, whomever needs it. But mostly, it avoids the easy answers, the limited and stunted, convenient closures. And maybe all a poem can really do is remind us that we are not alone—in our feelings. And maybe that’s nothing. And maybe that’s more than enough. Still, there’s no way of knowing if an engagement with poetry would have saved my uncle’s life. Perhaps. And perhaps not. But I wish I could’ve found a way to share it with him more often, to have the courage to communicate on that urgent and open bandwidth. That we could have trusted each other with our frailties knowing that, as humans, we are, at our best, partially broken. I was never able to explain to him what I really do—with poems and words. My family calls me a scholar because scholars are revered in Vietnam. Having lost so much, they wanted, desperately, for something to be proud of. How can I tell them that I spend hours, months, writing poems very few people will read—and with barely any money to show for it? I hesitate to elucidate on my writing, fearing I will taint any esteemed image they have of me in the process. Other families sacrifice everything for lawyers! my uncle would say at family gatherings, a Heineken in his hand and his face flushed with delight. But we, we did it for a scholar. We might be poor but we’ll live forever in books!

*

There is another world
but it is inside this one.

—Eluard

*

I speak of poetry only because it is the medium that I am most intimate with. But what I mean to say is that all art, if willing, can create the space for our most necessary communications. The character in the novel, the brush strokes in the painting, its tactile urgency, the statue of the Madonna made from birdseed, partly devoured and narrowed into a yellowed sliver in the rain. I want to believe there are things we can say without language. And I think this is the space the fire escape occupies, a space unbounded by genre or the physical limitations of the artist’s tools. A space of pure potential, of possibility, where our desires, our strange and myriad ecstasies can, however brief, remain amorphous and resist the decay actualized by the rational world.

writingAnd yet, in a time where the mainstream seems to continually question the power and validity of art, and especially of poetry, its need, its purpose, in a generation obsessed with appearances, of status updates and smiling selfies bathed (corrected?) in the golden light of filters, in which it has become more and more difficult for us to say aloud, to one another: I am hurt. I am scared. What happens now?, the poem, like the fire escape, as feeble and thin as it is, has become my most concentrated architecture of resistance. A place where I can be as honest as I need to—because the fire has already begun in my home, swallowing my most valuable possessions—and even my loved ones. My uncle is gone. I will never know exactly why. But I still have my body and with it these words, hammered into a structure just wide enough to hold the weight of my living. I want to use it to talk about my obsessions and fears, my odd and idiosyncratic joys. I want to leave the party through the window and find my uncle standing on a piece of iron shaped into visible desperation, which must also be (how can it not?) the beginning of visible hope. I want to stay there until the building burns down. I want to love more than death can harm. And I want to tell you this often: That despite being so human and so terrified, here, standing on this unfinished staircase to nowhere and everywhere, surrounded by the cold and starless night—we can live. And we will.

***

Rumpus original art by Liam Golden.


A winner of a 2014 Pushcart Prize, Ocean Vuong has received fellowships and awards from Kundiman, Poets House, The Civitella Ranieri Foundation (Italy), The Elizabeth George Foundation, and The Academy of American Poets. His poems appear in Poetry, The Nation, Boston Review, Beloit Poetry Journal, Guernica, TriQuarterly and American Poetry Review, which awarded him the 2012 Stanley Kunitz Prize for Younger Poets. He lives in Queens, NY. More from this author →