18 pages 36 minutes read

Ocean Vuong

Aubade with Burning City

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 2014

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Summary and Study Guide


Ocean Vuong is a preeminent voice in contemporary American literature. The acclaimed poet and writer uses precise language and striking imagery to explore a variety of topics, including Vietnamese American heritage, queer identity, personal mythology, and the human heart. A true modern poet, Vuong experiments freely with form and pushes words to their descriptive limits. Critics have described his work as raw, expansive, visceral, and tender. Although many of his poems start from deep-rooted pain and enduring suffering, he has a remarkable talent for gleaning hope and meaning from the direst circumstances. This is because his candid approach is undergirded with profound love for the subjects of his poems, as exemplified in “Aubade with Burning City.”

“Aubade with Burning City” is part of a series of poems that explores Vuong’s family history, beginning with his grandparents’ relationship during the Vietnam War. In this free-verse poem, Vuong ponders a bizarre detail from the 1975 Fall of Saigon: As North Vietnamese forces took the city at the end of April, American radio stations played Irving Berlin's song “White Christmas” over and over. Vuong captures the absurd contrast of this moment by weaving saccharine lyrics through the lines of his poem next to descriptions of violence and destruction. The poem narrates two simultaneous scenes: the intimate exchanges between a couple in a hotel room, and the actions of police and civilians in the street. The poem’s craft and emotion elevate its mission of centering those who have so often been shoved to the margins, exemplifying some of the most exciting movements in poetry today.

“Aubade with Burning City” first appeared in the February 2014 issue of Poetry magazine. A slightly edited version was published in Vuong's first full collection, Night Sky with Exit Wounds (Copper Canyon Press, 2016). This book won several awards including the T. S. Eliot Prize, the Whiting Award, and the Thom Gunn Award. Vuong has published another collection of poetry and a semi-autobiographical novel in the years since this poem’s publication. His honors include fellowships from the Poetry Foundation, the Academy of American Poets, the MacArthur Foundation, and the Pushcart Prize.

Poet Biography

Ocean Vuong was born in Ho Chi Minh City on October 14, 1988. His story often starts with his grandparents, a Vietnamese farm girl and a white American Navy soldier, who met and married during the Vietnam War. Vuong’s grandfather intended to stay in Vietnam after the war ended, but he couldn’t return to the country after the fall of Saigon. When Vuong was two years old, his mother and two aunts were threatened due to their heritage, and so three generations of the family fled to the Philippines. While in a refugee camp, the family paid a photographer their daily ration of three cups of rice to take a portrait. This photograph would appear on the cover of Vuong’s debut book of poetry. Eight months after they left Vietnam, Vuong and his family were relocated to Hartford, Connecticut. Vuong’s father left the family shortly thereafter. Growing up in a multigenerational household of women, Vuong says, was critical for his artistic formation.

Vuong struggled during his early school years. He learned to read and write slowly. He now considers this careful approach to language advantageous, viewing it as an asset to his artistic process. He initially enrolled in an international marketing degree for college, but he dropped out midway through his first semester. He went on to earn a bachelor of arts degree in 19th-century American literature at Brooklyn College, as well as a master of fine arts degree in poetry at New York University. He published two chapbooks, Burnings (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2010) and No (YesYes Books, 2013) before his debut poetry collection. Night Sky with Exit Wounds (Copper Canyon Press, 2016) won several prizes, including the T. S. Eliot Prize, the Whiting Award, and the Thom Gunn Award. It garnered immediate praise and recognition from the literary community. Vuong’s debut novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous (Penguin Press, 2019) was an instant New York Times bestseller, as was his second poetry collection, Time is a Mother (Penguin Press, 2022). Vuong currently lives in Northampton, Massachusetts and teaches in the Creative Writing MFA Program at NYU.

Poem Text

Vuong, Ocean. “Aubade with Burning City.” 2014. Poetry Foundation.


An epigraph sets the scene, providing historical context for the events that transpire in the poem. In late April of 1975, the American radio in Saigon played the Irving Berlin song, “White Christmas.” This song served as the signal to begin Operation Frequent Wind—the final evacuation of Americans and South Vietnamese refugees. Lines from “White Christmas” appear woven through and incorporated into the syntax of Vuong’s lines. The poem has a wide perspective, describing events inside of a building and out on the streets as North Vietnamese troops besiege the city.

The poem opens on an image of the city streets, describing "[m]ilkflower petals" (Line 1) strewn around “like pieces of a girl’s dress” (Line 2). Somewhere indoors, a soldier encourages a woman to drink champagne from a teacup. When he tells her to open, “She opens” (Line 6). Outside, people react to the siege: A soldier finishes a cigarette, people run in the square, and a police officer readies his weapon. Sounds of children screaming indoors are audible on the street as a military vehicle drives in, crushing a dog in its path.

Inside, the soldier caresses the woman as the street outside becomes more chaotic. The chief of police lies “facedown in a pool of Coca-Cola” (Line 27) with a wet picture of his father. The Irving Berlin song keeps playing, and a helicopter makes evacuations as the sky outside blazes red and buildings fall under more tanks. The city outside is covered with white rubble and ash. The city, the radio, the dog, the milkflower petals, and the girl’s dress all make another appearance, each named one after the other.

The lovers can’t ignore the situation outside anymore; debris hits the bedroom window, and the very ground the hotel stands on shakes. As the outside world intrudes, the soldier tells the woman, "Don't worry […] / […] my brothers have won the war / and tomorrow…” (Lines 45-47), but before he can finish his sentence, the lights go off.

The poem leaves the hotel for the last time and ends on an image in the square: "a nun, on fire, / runs silently toward her god" (Lines 51-52). The poem ends with a reprise of the first exchange of the lovers in the hotel room.