Leah’s Close Reading

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In Newport I Watched My Father Lay His Cheek to a Wet Dolphin's Back

by Ocean Vuong

Daddy Issues: An Analogous Examination of Oedipal and Anti-Oedipal Orders in Vuong’s “In Newport I Watch My Father Lay His Cheek to a Beached Dolphin’s Wet Back”

by Leah Mell



& close his eyes. His hair the shade

of its cracked flesh.


His right arm, inked with three falling

phoenixes—torches


marking the lives he had

or had not taken—cradles


the pinkish snout.
Its teeth

gleaming like bullets.


Huey. Tomahawk. Semi

-automatic. I was static


as we sat in the Nissan, watching waves

brush over our breaths


when he broke for shore, hobbled

on his gimp leg. Mustard


-yellow North Face jacket

diminishing toward the grey life


smeared into ours. Shrapnel

-strapped. Bushwhacker. The last time


I saw him run like that, he had

a hammer in his fist, mother


a nail-length out of reach.

America. America a row of streetlights


flickering on his whiskey

-lips as we ran. A family


screaming down Franklin Ave.

ADD. PTST. POW. Pow. Pow. Pow


says the sniper.
Fuck you

says the father, tracers splashing


through the palm leaves. Confetti

green, how I want you green.


Green despite the red despite

the rest. His knees sunk


in ink-black mud, he guides

a ribbon of water to the pulsing


blowhole.
Ok. Okay. AK

-47. I am eleven only once


as he kneels to gather the wet refugee

into his arms. Waves


swallowing

his legs. The dolphin’s eye


gasping like a newborn’s

mouth. & once more


I am swinging open

the passenger door. I am running


toward a rusted horizon, running

out of a country


to run out of. I am chasing my father

the way the dead chase after


days
—& although I am still

too far to hear it, I can tell,


by the way his neck tilts

to one side, as if broken,


that he is singing

my favorite song


to his empty hands.



Despite its inherently patriarchal and heteronormative implications, Freudian psychoanalytic theory, especially the notion of an Oedipal order, can be a useful frame for discussing power dynamics, relationships, and sexuality in literature. Simply framing a reading of a text as Oedipal does not indicate that the text reinforces or operates entirely within Freud’s theorized Oedipal order, but, instead, that it responds to it in some way by transgressing, succumbing, or complicating that frame. In Tennyson’s work In Memoriam that Kramer discusses in his scholarship, as well as in Vuong’s “In Newport I Watch My Father Lay His Cheek to a Beached Dolphin’s Wet Back,” the queer nature of the desire and representation of the subject fundamentally shifts Freud’s anticipated heteronormativity, such that a perfect Oedipal analogy can no longer exist. In this case, the poet allows an anti-Oedipal space and figure to enter the frame, and in Vuong, this anti-Oedipal space increases because the queer object of desire and sexual positionality is the speaker’s literal father, instead of a male peer. The presence of a complex, non-normative space in this Oedipal order challenges traditional power structures and sexual desires, while continuing to demonstrate the ways in which these oppressive structures shape even deviant behavior.

The article on which I will base my analogous criticism, “Victorian Poetry/Oedipal Politics: ‘In Memoriam’ and Other Instances” by Lawrence Kramer, provides several useful principles for the construction of a critical lens to examine Vuong’s work. For one, Kramer concludes that the poem “leaves […] Tennyson in the classical position of the Oedipal son, entirely dependent on the love and approval of the internalized father, the superego” and that “the superego traces its origin in things heard” (Kramer 358-359). This definition of the Oedipal son, in addition to the notion of the superego as the internalized father and, by extension, the id as the internalized mother, will help to clarify my claims regarding the position of Vuong’s speaker in the Oedipal order, both in his conformity and his subversion. Kramer also establishes effective criteria for the “doubly-gendered, anti-Oedipal subject,” stating that it must possess a “reciprocity between the figures that Tennyson derives from the phallus and breast,” which will inform my discussion of the gender-coded figures in Vuong as they relate to the anti-Oedipal subject of the father (359, 356). Finally, Kramer equates the “abnegation” of the Oedipal son before the father with “castration,” and this violent comparison and castration anxiety more broadly will aid in my examination of the physical form of the poem and Vuong’s use of space on the page (352).

Throughout the poem, the speaker grapples with his impulsive, childish id—the internalized mother—through child-like sonic play. The first internal rhyme pair in the poem is “Semi  -automatic. I was static,” which is mirrored later in the text by “Ok. Okay. AK  -47, I am eleven (Vuong 22-23), and while these lines certainly do not address childish subject matter, in a poem that otherwise consists of non-rhyming free verse, they stand out in their nonconformity. The use of rhyme here acts as a regression by the speaker to the familiar structure, often established in childhood stories and songs, of rhyme as an organizing principle, even when faced with the threat of violence or trauma. Both rhyme pairs also involve guns, which the speaker then connects to a jarring stillness and his young age, and the combination of these contradictory images further helps to depict the speaker’s internal conflict between maturity and immaturity. Another moment of sound-play comes in the progression: “ADD. PTSD. POW. Pow. Pow. Pow  says the sniper,” which conjures an image of children playing an imaginary war game with finger-guns and making “pow” sound effects (22). Again, the content is not simple or light, but mentions of serious mental illness and the consequences of war collapse into the speaker ventriloquizing a children’s game, further illustrating the partial control of his infantile id, even as he aspires to a closeness with his father and, thereby, his superego.

This aspiration toward the superego and the traditional role of the Oedipal son is most apparent in the conclusion of the poem, when the speaker says, “I am chasing my father the way the dead chase after days” (Vuong 23). The simile here emphasizes the impossibility of this desire—just as the dead cannot create more days to live, the speaker can never truly reach his father—but that does not cause the cessation of the desire. The speaker also notes during this chase that “he [the father] is singing my favorite song / to his empty hands,” which places emphasis on the aural symbol of the song, aural symbols being of special significance within the Oedipal order. (23). As stated above, in Kramer: “the superego traces its origin in things heard,” meaning that the linking of father and song emphasizes the speaker’s desire to, in some way, fill the role of the Oedipal son and succumb to his superego (Kramer 358-359). Nevertheless, the speaker partially embodies both the id and superego in this poem, which prevents him from categorically fulfilling the role of the Oedipal son, as the speaker in Kramer’s analysis of In Memoriam does.

Furthermore, in his construction of the “doubly-gendered, anti-Oedipal subject” of the father, Vuong associates both feminine- and masculine-coded images and figures with him throughout the poem (Kramer 359). The first notable phallic image does not belong to the father, but rather to the beached dolphin, and the father “cradles the pinkish snout” (Vuong 22). This early subversion of anticipated masculinity, which allows the helpless dolphin to possess the phallus (its snout) while the father takes on the maternal role of cradling, establishes the father as a subject in a non-normative space in which he can freely exhibit qualities traditionally associated with a mother figure. This association with a mother continues in the lines:“the dolphin’s eye gasping like a newborn’s mouth,” again placing the father in a direct maternal role to the dolphin, though now that image is even more visceral due to the dolphin’s implied need of nourishment from the father’s own body, or breast (23).

The persistent association with feminine-coded images almost allows the father, despite his physical sex, to become a plausible female conquest for the son under the standard Oedipal order, but his dual association with masculine figures complicates his position further. The first phallus that Vuong grants the father is “a hammer in his fist, mother nail-length out of reach,” which depicts him as a strong, aggressive—if not abusive—alpha-male figure, wielding a phallic hammer against his wife in a bout of drunken rage (Vuong 22). This violent phallic imagery places the father in a more traditional role under the Oedipal order, in direct contrast to his position as a gentle mother in other lines of the poem. In a more sexually charged image, “he guides / a ribbon of water to the pulsing blowhole” of the dolphin (23). In this moment, the dolphin’s “pulsing blowhole” can be read as a vagina, engorged prior to a sexual encounter, while the father acts to fill up and satisfy this opening with the “ribbon of water” in a traditionally masculine sexual role.

The tension between the phallus and gash, or vagina, is further demonstrated in the physical form of the poem on the page. The alternating left- and right-aligned lines create a column or stream of white space in the center of the page, drawing attention to an absence and lack at the heart of the poem. The language of lack is traditionally associated with female genitalia in Freudian thought, and a fear of this lack spurs castration anxiety in men. Kramer postulates that male submission to a father figure is equivalent to a figurative castration, which, in the context of this poem, could be expressed by Vuong’s choice to directly emphasize absence formally in the shape of central slit or gash that is just as present and visible as the text itself (Kramer 352). But regardless of a literal understanding of the white space as female genitalia, the physical divide in the center of the text functions to accentuate the tensions of unexpected and hybrid gender dynamics in this aberration from the expected Oedipal order.

Even the already anti-Oedipal order of Kramer’s analysis of Tennyson is upset in Vuong’s work, as the speaker’s father is the ultimate object of desire here. The father’s position as the anti-Oedipal subject complicates the order even more than a same-sex object of conquest, as described in In Memoriam and believed by Kramer to “unfold[] within and against, not beyond the Oedipal order” (Kramer 359). The father is the figure who the son ultimately seeks to destroy under traditional Oedipal constraints, though he must submit to him at first, and to place him at the center of the son’s desire requires a renegotiation of all the anticipated power dynamics, in addition to creating a new role for or negating the role of the mother entirely—something that Vuong does not explore in this poem. Nevertheless, the speaker here does experience similar conflicts to a typical Oedipal son, including the tension between the id and superego and the pursuit of and submission to the father, regardless of intention, as discussed above.

Kramer claims that Tennyson “dislocated the Oedipal order but does not escape it,” and maybe the same is true for Vuong, as his speaker still has similar anxieties to those that occur traditionally, despite Vuong’s more transgressive and nearly impossible representation of desire under such constraints (355). Though perhaps, in a contemporary literature and consciousness formed by an inherently patriarchal society, an author cannot conclusively write himself out of the Oedipal order that informs and shapes the very traditions that he is writing to, no matter how unusual his subject.

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Works Cited

Kramer, Lawrence. “Victorian Poetry/Oedipal Politics: ‘In Memoriam’ and Other Instances.” Victorian Poetry, vol. 29, no. 4, 1991, pp. 351–363.

Vuong, Ocean. “In Newport I Watch My Father Lay His Cheek to a Beached Dolphin’s Wet Back.” Night Sky with Exit Wounds, Copper Canyon Press, 2016, pp. 22–23.