Kudos to Ocean Vuong, who has just been awarded the 2012 Stanley Kunitz Memorial Prize for Younger Poets. His winning poem, “Prayer for the Newly Damned,” is featured in the current (September/October 2012) issue of the American Poetry Review. Take a read: you’ll find a powerful, haunting story with deep philosophical resonance. Using carefully selected images to sketch a shocking scene of violence, Vuong forces us to read between the lines of his stark narrative details. We are left contemplating broader questions of religion, truth, trauma, and memory.
Prayer for the Newly Damned
Dearest Father, forgive me for I have seen.
Behind the wooden fence, a field lit
with summer, a man pressing a shank
to another man’s throat. Steel turning to light
on sweat-slick neck. Forgive me
for not calling Your name. For thinking:
this must be how every prayer
begins—the word Please cleaving
the wind into fragments, into what
a boy hears in his need to know
how pain blesses the body back
to its sinner. The hour suddenly
stilled. The man genuflected, his lips
pressed to black boot as the words spilled
from his mouth like rosaries
shattering from too much
Father. Am I wrong to love
those eyes, to see something so clear
and blue—beg to remain
clear and blue? Did my cheek twitch
when that darkness bloomed from his crotch
and trickled into ochre dirt? Father,
how quickly the blade becomes
You. But let me begin again: There’s a boy
kneeling in a house with every door kicked open
to summer. There’s a question corroding
his tongue. There’s a knife touching
Your name lodged inside the throat.
Dearest Father, what becomes of the boy
no longer a boy? Please—
what becomes of the shepherd
when the sheep are cannibals?
Vuong was born in Saigon, grew up in Connecticut, and now calls Brooklyn home. Last year, diaCRITICS guest blogger Eric Nguyen reviewed Vuong’s debut chapbook, Burnings. Keep watching for more great work ahead from this talented poet.