Taking Apart: “Telemachus” by Ocean Vuong// Writing our realities through spinning myths

I found this poem really interesting, particularly because it was informed by mythology, and I have been really into seeing how mythologies could connect to the modern day stories, or even just simply how a myth can inform a modern day poem. I think a good writing exercise for all of us would be to think about an event or person or object in our life that we feel we “dont have the word for” and turn to mythology to find parallels and maybe ways to connect our reality in a more abstract way.

Anyways, here’s the poem: (my analysis is underneath)




Like any good son, I pull my father out

of the water, drag him by his hair


through sand, his knuckles carving a trail

the waves rush in to erase. Because the city


beyond the shore is no longer

where he left it. Because the bombed


cathedral is now a cathedral

of trees. I kneel beside him to see how far


I might sink. Do you know who this is,

ba? But the answer never comes, The answer


is the bullet hole in his back, brimming

with seawater. He is so still I think


he could be anyone’s father, found

the way a green bottle might appear


at a boy’s feet containing a year

he has never touched. I touch


his ears. No use. The neck’s

bruising. I turn him over. To face


it. The cathedral in his sea-black eyes.

The face not mine but one I will wear


to kiss all my lovers goodnight:

the way I seal my father’s lips


with my own and begin

the faithful work of drowning.

This poem is part of Ocean Vuong’s recent poetry collection, “Night Sky With Exit Wounds,” that deals with grief, displacement, violence, and the experience of an Asian coming to America. Instead, that  It builds a myth on the absence of a father, and this myth, by the end of the poem, becomes entwined with the reality of this painfully distant father. Telemachus was the son of Odysseus, who seeks a report on how his father is doing out at war. In this poem,  the father is so distant that he is absent to our speaker.

Violence is embedded within this poem, seen through verb that are harsh in a sonic sense, i.e. “drag,” “bombed,” “carve” and “brimming,” to name a few. Our speaker associates his father with drowning: “I kneel beside him to see how far/ I might sink.” Implying that proximity or even mere presence of his father is enough to spark this drowning. Our speaker is aware that this man washed up on the shore is his father, but due to the distance between them, he still has to  mutter to himself: “He is so still/ I think he could be anyone’s father.” It is hard to read those two lines, and that well-positioned line break, without grasping onto a sense of hope that this in fact was not our speaker’s father.

Also embedded within this poem that I would like to explore is absence. Absence appears both in images of what is missing: “he is so still” and also “the way a green bottle might appear/at a boy’s feet containing a year/he has never touched” are two images conveying the distance between this father and son, a distance encapsulated by absence: the boy has never touched this message in a bottle, because the son has not been with his father since he left for ‘war’ (this is the mythological connect). His father’s body being ‘still” is more a sign of something not being there, in the context of this poem, rather than something specifically being dead or lifeless.  Another prominent image of absence is contained within the first few lines:  “Like any good son, I pull my father out/ of the water, drag him by his hair/ through sand, his knuckles carving a trail/ the waves rush in to erase.” Any kind of mark that his father tries to make after coming back to his son is just washed away.


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