17 pages 34 minutes read

Ocean Vuong

Kissing in Vietnamese

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 2014

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The Effects of War on Civilians

The poem “Kissing in Vietnamese” takes place in the present, but it also implies a flashback to the past, in the farmland where the speaker’s grandmother lived during the war. Vuong’s grandmother was a “common” person, the daughter of a rice-farmer, who was not a soldier and who did not see combat. At the same time, the poem depicts an ordinary woman who was deeply affected by the war, even in the civilian zone of her family’s farm. She heard “bombs […] bursting in the backyard, / where mint and jasmine lace their perfumes / through the kitchen window” (Lines 2-4), and she saw bodies “danc[ing] with exit wounds” (Line 9) when they left the relative safety of her civilian household. It is clear the war came to the grandmother’s home, interrupting the day-to-day activities of what otherwise would have been a peaceful, even tranquil farming life. The war also killed people close to her, which is described in an almost casual voice. The line, “dance with exit wounds” (Line 9), melds something common and even joyous with something that seems out of place in the mundanity of rural life, being shot through with bullets.

By exploring the effects of the war on a non-combatant such as his grandmother, the speaker points to the depths of the war’s effect on even a nation’s most ordinary citizens.