21 pages 42 minutes read

Ocean Vuong

Toy Boat

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 2016

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Summary and Study Guide


“Toy Boat” by Ocean Vuong begins with the dedication “For Tamir Rice.”  Rice was a Black child who was playing with a toy gun when he was shot and killed by a white police officer. At the time of his death in November 2014, Rice was only 12 years old. Throughout Vuong’s poem, the speaker considers both the titular toy boat and Rice simultaneously.

Vuong comments on the cruel irony of Rice playing with a toy gun when he was shot and killed with a real one; “Toy Boat” mimics this real-life irony by writing about a toy in a somber way. Toys (be they boats or guns) are supposed to be fun and playful, not objects of serious and mournful contemplation—yet the speaker’s meditation on the eponymous toy boat is grave and grief-stricken.

Since Rice’s life was cut short, “Toy Boat” is a short-lined work. The poem also notably doesn’t include any terminal punctuation—there are no periods, exclamation points, or question marks. The absence of a period at the end of the poem (or anywhere else) suggests that even after the poem ends, the speaker has not found any closure following Rice’s death. It also suggests that the problem has not stopped and that more Black people will be murdered by the police.

Rice’s death was not an isolated incident but part of a pattern of police brutality against Black people. Just a few months before Rice was shot and killed, in the summer of 2014, a series of police killings of Black men ignited a then relatively new movement that used Twitter to empower supporters, mobilize protestors, and garner national attention: #BlackLivesMatter. The Black Lives Matter Movement also protested Rice’s death and has continued to protest the deaths of Black people at the hands of the police.

“Toy Boat” is part elegy and part protest. It is also part work of notional ekphrasis, since it describes and meditates on a non-verbal work of art (the titular toy).

Poet Biography

Vuong was born in Saigon, Vietnam but grew up in Hartford, Connecticut. He earned a BA from Brooklyn College and an MFA from New York University. After publishing two chapbooks (Burnings in 2010 and No in 2013), Vuong published his first full-length collection of poetry, Night Sky with Exit Wounds, in 2016. This book won the T.S. Eliot Prize, the Whiting Award, the Thom Gunn Award, and the Forward Prize for Best First Collection.

Next, Vuong published the novel On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous in 2019. This book shares its title with a poem from Night Sky with Exit Wounds. Vuong’s second full-length collection of poetry, Time is a Mother, was published in 2022.

Vuong won the prestigious MacArthur “Genius” Grant. He also won a Ruth Lily Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation, as well as fellowships from the Lannan Foundation, the Civitella Ranieri Foundation, the Elizabeth George Foundation, and the Academy of American Poets.

Vuong is a professor in the MFA Program at University of Massachusetts,  Amherst.

Poem Text

Vuong, Ocean. “Toy Boat.” 2016. Poetry Foundation.


“Toy Boat” begins with the dedication “For Tamir Rice.”  Rice was a Black child who was killed by the police: on November 22, 2014, Rice was playing with a toy gun that fired plastic pellets in a Cleveland park when he was fatally shot by a white police officer. Rice was only 12 years old.

The opening lines of the poem describe the titular toy boat. The boat is made of “yellow plastic” (Line 1) and situated on a “black sea” (Line 2), which is likely plastic as well. The boat is oval, like the human eye, and is described as an “eye-shaped shard / on a darkened map” (Lines 3-4).

The toy boat has “no shores now” (Line 5) and “no wind but / this waiting which / moves you” (Lines 8-10). How “waiting” can “move” is left ambiguous here. Who the “you” refers to (Rice, the boat, or both) is also left ambiguous. Nonetheless, “waiting” (Line 9) transports the “you” (Line 10) “as if the seconds / could be entered / & never left” (Lines 11-13).

The boat is “oarless” and the waves it faces are made of green light instead of plastic: “each wave / a green lamp / outlasted” (Lines 15-17).

The titular toy boat is either joined by a “toy leaf dropped / from a toy tree” or it is described metaphorically as a “toy leaf dropped / from a toy tree” (Lines 19-20). The toy boat/toy leaf is “waiting // waiting” (Lines 21-22). This “waiting” is done “as if the sp- / arrows” (Lines 23-24) flying away “are not / already pierced by their own names” (Lines 26-28).