24 pages 48 minutes read

Ocean Vuong


Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 2014

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Summary and Study Guide


"Eurydice” is a lyric poem written by Ocean Vuong, a Vietnamese American gay writer. It originally appeared in The Nation in 2014. A revised version reappeared in Vuong’s first full-length poetry collection, Night Sky with Exit Wounds, in 2016.

"Eurydice" is framed within the collection’s larger mythological and modern narrative. It draws on the doomed love affair between Orpheus and Eurydice from ancient Greek and Roman mythology. Through this myth, Vuong explores the complexities and difficulties of love under societal pressures.

Poet Biography

Ocean Vuong has received critical acclaim across genres. He wrote the full-length poetry collections Time is a Mother (2022) and Night Sky with Exit Wounds (2016). Before these collections, he published the poetry chapbooks No (2013) and Burnings (2010). The Library Journal called his first novel, On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous (2019), "an epistolary ­masterpiece."

Born in 1988 in Saigon, Vietnam, Vuong's family fled from the country after a policeman discovered his mother's mixed-race heritage. The law barred Vuong's mother from working since she was a daughter of an American GI and a Vietnamese woman. The family eventually settled in Hartford, Connecticut. His father left them shortly after. Vuong grew up working class with his mother, aunt, and grandmother.

Lineage and memory deeply inform Vuong's works, drawing influence from Homer: "I was thinking about Homer particularly, who wrote those two epic poems out of a historical event that happened nearly 400 years in the past," he said in an interview with The Guardian. "I admired that audacity to invent. In inventing, he preserved history […] Personally, I'm always asking who's my father. Like Homer, I felt I'd better make it up. The Japanese have a word for it: yugen, when you have so little, you have to imagine it." (Armitstead, Claire. “War baby: the amazing story of Ocean Vuong, former refugee and prize-winning poet.” The Guardian, 2017.)

Vuong identifies as a gay man and a practicing Zen Buddhist, which influence his writing:

"I didn't want to write a story that folks could just get lost in on vacation and move on,” he told GQ. “I wanted the mirror of a breathing queer writer of color in the world to be reflected back onto the reader […]

“In a lot of the Western canon, we ask for cohesion, particularly of queer bodies, and what I want to ask is how can we write cohesive stories when our lives do not get the privilege of cohesion? In order for a queer writer of color to write a cohesive story is to ultimately write a lie." (Kuga, Mitchell. “Ocean Vuong Explores the Coming-of-Age Queerness.” GQ, 2019.)

Vuong's achievements include a MacArthur "Genius" Grant, the T.S. Eliot Prize, the Stanley Kunitz Prize for Younger Poets, the Beloit Poetry Journal’’s Chad Walsh Poetry Prize, a Ruth Lilly Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation, the Thom Gunn Award, and the Whiting Award.

He earned a BA from Brooklyn College and an MFA in Poetry from NYU. Vuong and his partner live in Northampton. Vuong teaches at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst's MFA program.

Poem Text

Vuong, Ocean. “Eurydice.” 2016. Night Sky with Exit Wounds.


"Eurydice" begins with the death cry of a dying deer. The "It’s" (Line 1) that starts the comparison to the deer remains ambiguous. The poem’s speaker makes the moment both a sunset and a death scene: the arrowhead "replaces the day" (Line 4). Daytime is associated with waking and working, the night with endings, sleep, and death. Like the sunset ends the day and begins night, the arrow replaces the deer's life with death. The "rib's hollowed / hum" (Line 6) refers to the deer's heart. The arrow replaces the deer's beating heart.

Vuong’s speaker travels with a companion. They both know the day's end is coming, but decide to journey onwards through a garden. They do this because the leaves look “bright green” (Line 9). The speaker notes that a far-off fire looks like "only a pink brushstroke" (Line 11). However, they admit that shadows play a considerable role in perception. Vuong establishes a dusk setting: "replaces the day,” (Line 4). A sense of predictability is evoked by "We saw it coming" (Line 6). The speaker hints that they saw their journey as urgent and regretfully underestimated it: “We saw it coming but kept walking” (Line 7).

Shadows form when an object blocks sunlight. A person's position relative to the sun and object can affect perception. Vuong references this principle:

             […] It’s not
about the light—but how dark
    it makes you depending
on where you stand (Lines 12-15).

These lines conjure dusk and twilight when shadows lengthen. The speaker’s location relative to the sun, fire, and shade make it look like they had more hours of daylight left.

The speaker tells his companion that the companion, down to his name, seems different depending on where he stands. In a particular place with a certain amount of darkness, the companion's name conjures images of a dead deer. The speaker sees a full moon cast on its corpse. The companion’s position makes his companion’s “name […] appear like moonlight shredded in a dead dog’s fur” (Lines 15-17).

The speaker recounts how gravity bends them and their companion by breaking their knees. Gravity wants them to look up at the sky. Both the speaker and their companion say yes—perhaps replying to a question from gravity. The speaker worries who will believe them about their experience. The speaker implies that the experience damages their voice. It now cracks like radio static. They connect the static quality of their voice to physical injuries by rendering the static as "bones inside the radio" (Line 27).

The speaker chides themselves on believing love to be more real than the body. They continue musing on their changing beliefs, adding, "I thought a little chord / was all it took" (Lines 30-31). This line remains ambiguous. It is unclear if "a little chord was all it took" to continue on their journey, protect love and overcome the body, or have enough knowledge to avoid a situation. The speaker and his companion find themselves in a field they visited. A “him,” perhaps the companion, (33), calls for a doe. The doe stands next to him and walks on her hooves.