Thanksgiving like This

Thanksgiving 2006


Brooklyn’s too cold tonight

& all my friends are three years away.

My mother said I could be anything

I wanted—but I chose to live.

On the stoop of an old brownstone,

a cigarette flares, then fades.

I walk to it: a razor

sharpened with silence.

His jawline etched in smoke.

The mouth where I reenter

this city. Stranger, palpable

echo, here is my hand, filled with blood thin

as a widow’s tears. I am ready.

I am ready to be every animal

you leave behind.

Ostensibly, an American Thanksgiving is an occasion of family gathering and an occasion to express your gratitude for the people and the things that enable you to be where you are (assuming that where you are is a positive place). “Thanksgiving 2006” by Ocean Vuong is a poem that disrupts such an event and its naive meaning.

The first line situates us, not in an enclosed domestic scene of warmth and kins, but in a vast space of a city, “Brooklyn”, and the “too cold” weather to be comfortable. The speaker is alone; all his friends are “three years away,” which is an odd signification of distance, where distance is not measured by physical length but by an excessive amount of time; have his friends been dead for three years? If not dead, then he hasn’t seen them for three years? and thus the temporal distance is irreversible as he has alienated himself from his friends by leaving for the city? Regardless, it is Thanksgiving and the speaker is in a vast lonesome harsh space, where time prevents his access to a community of support.

To break away from this aloneness (or is it loneliness? does the former mean the latter for him?), he heads towards a man. For a few days as I reread the poem, I kept thinking of this man as the speaker’s lover, just because of the physical fact of his “mouth,” of his carnal flesh that enables the speaker to reexperience the city through the act of kissing. His mouth is the site where the speaker “reenter [the] city,” where the city is no longer unbound but has been reduced to a particular site where the speaker can take refuge. Then, I realize that there doesn’t have to be an emotional aspect to their relationship; in fact, the speaker does not reveal his relationship to this man beyond the fact of the flesh. The man, likely a stranger whom the speaker seeks to quench his aloneness, is nevertheless a warm carnal site that replaces the traditional Thanksgiving.

The passage that the speaker takes towards the man, his very act of “walk[ing]”  is described as analogous to “a razor/ sharpened with silence.” I’m inclined to read this as a sign of danger, that the very act of reaching this stranger man can be dangerous as what stands between them is “silence,” is nothing as the speaker does not know him. This danger is juxtaposed with the pleasure the speaker later gains from his encounter with the man. It is a risk the speaker is willing to take to not be alone.

Interestingly, the speaker’s encounter with the man is only experienced in fragments and in attributes and never in wholes. When heading towards the man, the speaker follows the sight of his cigarette but not the man himself; the cigarette becomes the light, which “flares, then fades,” an attribute of the man, serving as a beacon to guide the speaker’s direction. The speaker zooms in to the man’s body parts and its attributes: his jawline, his mouth, his cigarette; only the fragments of and around his face. Is this because this man is a stranger and therefore cannot be fully experienced whole? Or is it because the speaker is simply fractured psychically? Both?

Even the speaker becomes a fragment: “here is my hand,” he says, offering one hand to the man or to us readers. The hand bears the history of loss as it is described as “filled with blood thin/as a widow’s tears.” Sure, the blood can be read to be on his hand, the blood of loss on par with the loss of a loved one experienced by a widow; but it can also be read as inside his hand, the blood that “fill[s]” him inside, signifying that he carries the loss within; the loss and the trauma of blood and tears that has fractured him and his ongoing experience. All the lines are separated by blank white space. What is it that the poem leaves out? This silence, the blankness; are they the unspeakable of trauma? or empty loneliness?

Early in the poem, the speaker evokes his mother’s encouragement that he “could be anything/[he] wanted”, meaning that: with acute ambition, the speaker can achieve anything, any title that he can eventually become grateful for at the occasion of Thanksgiving; but, the speaker resists; instead, he “chose to live,” to live without having to strive ruthlessly, ambitiously for any social accomplishment. Perhaps at the end of the poem, we have a better glimpse of what that living looks like: the speaker is “ready,” ready “to be every animal/you leave behind.” Is he assuming the position of the subaltern? of the things people leave out when expressing their gratitude at Thanksgiving? …

4 thoughts on “Thanksgiving like This”

  1. This is such a fabulous example of close reading! You crack open the poem in beautiful ways. One method that you used that specifically stuck out to me was tracking your reaction acrsos a few days time. I think that acknowledging an evolving comprehension is very important, but I don’t think there’s always the time to do so. I think that you should prioritize this in your future close readings if you can, because I think that it works really well here. While I love how intimate you were with the poem and how open you were to new ideas, I do with that you were more confident about your claims! For example, when you write, ” I’m inclined to read this as a sign of danger…”, I moreso want you to say “This is a sign of danger.”

  2. This is such a fantastic read! As someone who also thinks about the place Thanksgiving holds in a cultural context (considering I don’t partake…) seeing you so closely and meticulously close read the intricacies of an immigrant author’s perspective is exciting! You have a fantastic understanding of this poem and the emotions it evokes, and you offer a good view of its complexity.

  3. You do such a beautiful job close reading this poem here. It’s really great to see your thought process play out across these readings. I’m particularly intrigued by the last line, in comparing humans to an animal left behind. You ask whether it refers to the subaltern. I also wonder if it’s in the most basic sense meant to signify some kind of celebration of violence against others. Thanksgiving already is in itself a celebration of colonialism and violence, but in the most literal sense today, we celebrate through the death of an animal to mount as our table’s centerpiece. It’s really hauntingly beautiful to bring this image in here at the end. Perhaps, one reading of this line could be a critique in saying “I’m ready” because this is our current reality and one has to be ready because this is what must be faced.

  4. I really enjoyed reading this poem and your analysis of how this turns the traditional Thanksgiving scene on its head. When I came across the reference to “every animal” in the closing lines, I was reminded of our class session on Vuong’s poetry, in which we discussed his reference to animals further. It made me think of the references to a baby calf or veal in the Trevor poem, and how it conveyed a sense of innocence and violence. I wonder if there is a similar connotation here. Especially in terms of thanksgiving, in which the whole holiday revolves around the consumption of an animal in the name of gratitude. I wonder if Vuong has any connection to animal activism or if this is a common metaphor he uses within his poetry generally to convey degradation in status, like you mention. It is also to think about animals and consumption in the lines on “the mouth where I reenter this city,” and if the speaker views himself as an “animal,” seemingly being consumed on a holiday surrounding eating. Also the reference to the razor, or knife, reminded me of carving the turkey, but much more violent.

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