“Milkflower petals on the street
like pieces of a girl’s dress.
May your days be merry and bright. . .
He fills a teacup with champagne, brings it to her lips.
Open, he says.”
“Aubade with Burning City”*
Last week, my son Jon, a poet who directs the creative writing program at the University of West Florida, emailed me a link to Ocean Vuong’s poem “Aubade with Burning City” appearing in the Poetry Foundation’s Poetry Magazine on line. I knew the poem. I had read that as a two-year old, Vuong had emigrated to the U. S. with his family, Vietnamese refugees, and that “Aubade with Burning City” was influenced by his grandmother’s childhood recollection of the collapse of Saigon in 1975, White Christmas being played as a coded message for American personnel to evacuate the city.
I told Jon how much I liked the poem, its juxtaposition of the persona and the girl, the Americans escaping Saigon, and especially the consequences for the Vietnamese abandoned to their fates in the city. I still wonder what happened to the women I became close to in Danang, 1970, the women in the refugee camp outside of the First Marine Air Wing compound. We paid them for washing our clothes in the community shower of the old French barracks where we slept. They would lay out the clothes on the floor of the shower, pour detergent over the clothes, and then walk over them as if washing clothes on the rocks in streams and rivers back near their lost villages.
They would often wash the clothes while we were showering. You quickly got used to this. The older women (late twenties to mid thirties) would modestly avert their eyes. Huy, my friend, would sometimes look up and grin. The younger women would often giggle. Most of their husbands had either died in the fighting or were still in the ARVN military (Army of the Republic of Vietnam.) The women were all young, but the youngest and most beautiful found jobs as waitresses / bar girls in the officers’ club. They did whatever they had to in order to survive.
At night, they would file out of the fenced compound and return to their tin and cardboard shacks, then queue up and file back in the next morning. Often the “rockets” (VC mortars) would fall short of our compound and land among the refugees’ huts. It was a different lifestyle for the Vietnamese families (mostly rice farmers) in the villages. They were proud and reserved, especially around Marines. I assumed many of them were Viet Cong.
We had a Vietnamese student over for Thanksgiving last November. He is one of my daughter-in-law’s students and popular at Hardin-Simmons University. He is much too young to have experienced what his grandparents and parents experienced. The Vietnamese are beautiful people. I told Jon thanks for reminding me.
*Ocean Vuong is a thirty-year-old Vietnamese-American poet, essayist, and novelist. “Aubade with Burning City” is from Vuong’s Night Sky with Exit Wounds, Copper Canyon Press, 2016. His first novel On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous was published June 2019 by Penguin Press. He is an Assistant Professor in the MFA Program for Writers at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.