“In the body, where everything has a price”: Intergenerational Economy in Ocean Vuong’s “Threshold”

In Ocean Vuong’s “Threshold,” the point of entry into his debut poetry collection Night Sky with Exit Wounds (2016), a son is in a state of impoverishment:

In the body, where everything has a price,
             I was a beggar. [1]

Attributed both financial and spatial dimensions, the body becomes analogous to a market, a space in which everything costs. In this economic environment, the son admits to a physiological poverty. As an immigrant, a descendant of Vietnam War refugees, someone who has lived with a family of seven in a one-bedroom apartment, [2] and as someone who has been homeless, [3] Vuong has a history of literal impoverishment. This history informs and lends a vocabulary of economics to “Threshold” but is not explored in it, and the poem does not enter the long tradition of Western writers dating back to Homer who have considered the figure of the beggar. Instead, exploring a specific concern that he shares with an emerging group of contemporary Vietnamese American poets, Vuong uses the metaphor of the beggar to introduce an embodied economy in the son and to show how it is negotiated as he comes into a near-fiscal sensory contact with the father. I will look at how Vuong uses the language of economics to dramatize the negotiation between generational distance and proximity to trauma.

Considering the social marginality and urban invisibility to which poverty often leads, John Bird writes that being a beggar is “about living on the edge of things.” [4] As the title may suggest, “Threshold” begins in those margins, but rather than social, here the margin is generational. Immediately after describing himself as a beggar, the son, outside a closed door, peeks at his father in the shower:

                                      On my knees,

I watched, through the keyhole, not
          the man showering, but the rain

falling through him. (2-5)

Even though they seem unrelated, the poem moves from its first sentence to the next almost as though they are consequential. This movement intimates that the son watches the father not only after he shares that he is a beggar in the body but exactly because of this state, thereby implying that there is a currency to be gained by doing so. We are also prompted to see a connection between the first two sentences of the poem through the affiliation of begging and kneeling. The son does not kneel to beg the father for something but to look at him. Yet, the previous reference to his beggarhood adjusts the ontological value of looking in this pose by conflating it with begging and suggests that the father, or contact with the father, can enrich the son. Far from being merely inquisitive, then, the son’s gaze allows him to beg by looking, move beyond his marginal position, and thus come into a rewarding sensory contact with the previous generation.

During this act of witnessing-cum-begging, both the son and the father, the voyeur and the object of the gaze, the beggar and the wealthy man, experience a subtle geographical dislocation to the landscape of Vietnam. Instead of being under the shower water, the father is washing, even internally, in the “rain” (4), a parapraxis that reveals the environment that the father carries inside him. For Claire Schwartz, this exiguous grammatical incoherency shows that the “the domestic realm of the shower collapses into the elemental purview of the rain,” [5] while for Austin Segrest, this instance is connected with the way in which “Vietnam’s tropical rain follows the family through the book.” [6] In “Threshold,” as the son attempts to bridge a generational gap and come closer to the father, he experiences a traumatic dislocation through him: his father in the shower becomes akin to his fatherland under the rainwater.

After this visual contact, the son fills his life with an equally polarized aural one:

He was singing, which is why
          I remember it. His voice—

it filled me to the core
          like a skeleton. (7-10)

From this audiovisual vantage point, the son becomes a container: he takes in the voice of the father to fill his skeletal emptiness. Located in the broader language of economy that this poem sets in motion, the language of containment—filling, subsuming, repositing, retaining—is systematic throughout Vuong’s collection, sometimes with explicitly sexual connotations (see “Ode to Masturbation”) and sometimes in terms of trauma (see “Telemachus”). This diction aligns well with the way Vuong has defined the gaze in his debut novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous (2019), as “a singular act: to look at something is to fill your whole life with it, if only briefly.” [7] It is also a language that is often found in theories of intergenerational trauma. In his explanation of the dynamics of inheritance, for instance, M. Gerald Fromm argues that “the truly traumatic, that which cannot be contained by one generation, […] necessarily, and largely unconsciously, plays itself out through the next generation.” [8] For Fromm, the analogical metaphor that likens generations to containers of trauma encapsulates the ways in which inordinate events, such as the Vietnam War, cause trauma that overflows into ensuing periods of time.

Invested, immersed, and soaked in the father’s “song” and “rain,” and now saying that “in the body, where everything has a price, / I was alive” (14-15), the son acknowledges the generational distance he has eliminated and, simultaneously, the price of doing so:

                        I didn’t know the cost
of entering a song—was to lose
            your way back.
So I entered. So I lost.
            I lost it all with my eyes 
wide open. (20-25)

Vuong may be describing an intimate, domestic father-and-son moment, but his diction seems more appropriate for a contractual agreement. That there is a “cost” for initiating what should have been an entirely profitable sensory contact with the father suggests that this agreement is built upon a dialectical dynamic. To “lose / your way” is an idiomatic expression that traditionally denotes a spatial disorientation, an inability to find the right direction. Yet, with the adverb “back,” which can dictate both time and space, this displacement becomes both geographical and temporal. In moving towards the father, attempting to eliminate his beggarhood and exclusion, then, the son is transposed to a corresponding, relational “back.”

Vuong integrates this framework of economy systematically in his poetry and prose: in “The Gift”, a mother unconsciously bestows a linguistic, sensory, and temporal present to the son; [9] in “Telemachus”, a son “seal[s] [his] father’s lips / with [his] own & begin[s] / the faithful work of drowning”; [10] and, more recently, in On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, a grandson “pluck[s], one by one, the grey hairs” from his grandmother’s head in exchange for stories (22). But, as part of a currently flourishing dynamic group of second-generation Vietnamese American poets, Vuong is writing in a moment when many poets are deliberating, among many other things, on the effects of their generational proximity to trauma, sometimes in similar quasi-financial terms. Even a quick glance at some of the collections by Vietnamese American writers who were born after the war, some in Vietnam and some in the United States, shows that this language is present and multivalent: the title of Phuong Vuong’s book is The House I Inherit (2019), the title of Sahra Nguyen’s book is One Ounce Gold (2012), Diana Khoi Nguyen entitles one of her poems “An Empty House is a Dept” (2018), Cathy Linh Che writes about the desiccation and debt of the ones who left Vietnam in “Los Angeles, Manila, Đà Nẵng” (2016), and (as Vuong and Che have also done) Paul Tran asks how the parents’ post-war and post-migration jobs perpetuate trauma and its transmission in “Dry Clean” (2017).

The economic terms with which these poets often frame intergenerational relationships convert the psychologically intricate dynamics of inheritance that would otherwise be inaccessible to readers (and perhaps even to the poets themselves) into something palpable. The language of economy that Vuong deploys in “Threshold” opens the door for us (leaves it ajar, removes the towel from the keyhole), rendering almost cognizable and public what the trauma theorist Lenore Terr has called the “contagion” of the ones who listen. [11] At the same time, the poem becomes a perfect allegory for the transactions between readers and poetry in general: how we, on the threshold, try to move closer to the “rain” and hear the “song” of the poem, or how we negotiate imported and exported meanings, or even, how our linguistic, philosophical, and empathetic affluence is depended on poetry-reading at-large. Yet, the sui generis nature of “Threshold” lies in Vuong’s careful synthesis of the language of economy and the contact with the father. The melding of the two gives the impression that this language is not only a means to a process of representation, used to approximate the son’s profits and losses in the vicinity of the previous generation, but rather a way of emphasizing negotiations between distance and trauma, exclusion and inclusion.


[1] Ocean Vuong, Night Sky with Exit Wounds (Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 2016), 3, l.1-2. Further references to this edition are given after quotations in the text.
[2] Ocean Vuong, “Surrendering,” New Yorker, May 30, 2016, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/06/06/ocean-vuong-immigrating-into-english.
[3] Ocean Vuong, “Beginnings: New York,” Adroit Journal, no. 12 (2015), https://theadroitjournal.org/issue-twelve-ocean-vuong.
[4] John Bird, “Introduction,” in From a Sheltered Flame: The Big Issue Book, ed. Martin Dunkerton and Sky (London: Simon & Schuster, 1993), 11.
[5] Claire Schwartz, “On Night Sky with Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong,” Georgia Review. October 4, 2016, https://thegeorgiareview.com/fall-2016/on-night-sky-with-exit-wounds-by- ocean-vuong/.
[6] Austin Segrest, “Unhealable Hunger: On Ocean Vuong’s Night Sky with Exit Wounds,” Southern Humanities Reviews, December 13, 2016, [7] Ocean Vuong, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous (New York: Penguin Press, 2019), 175.
[8] Fromm, M. Gerard, “Introduction,” in Lost in Transmission: Studies of Trauma Across Generations, ed. M. Gerard Fromm (London: Karnac, 2012), xx.
[9] Vuong, Night Sky, 24-25.
[10] Vuong, Night Sky, 7-8, l.22-24, my emphasis.
[11] Lenore Terr, “Remembered Images and Trauma: A Psychology of the Supernatural,” The Psychoanalytic Study of the Child 40 (1985): 503, 527.

Works Cited

Bird, John. “Introduction.” In From a Sheltered Flame: The Big Issue Book, edited by Martin Dunkerton and Sky, 10-12. Simon & Schuster, 1993.
Fromm, M. Gerard. “Introduction.” In Lost in Transmission: Studies of Trauma Across Generations, edited by M. Gerard Fromm, xv-xxi. Karnac, 2018.
Schwartz, Claire. “On Night Sky with Exit Woundsby Ocean Vuong.”Georgia Review, Oct.4, 2016. https://thegeorgiareview.com/posts/on-night-sky-with-exit-wounds-by- ocean-vuong/.
Segrest, Austin. “Unhealable Hunger: On Ocean Vuong’s Night Sky with Exit Wounds.” Southern Humanities Review, Dec. 13, 2016. http://www.southernhumanitiesreview.com/review-night-sky-with-exit-wounds-by-ocean-vuong.html
Terr, Lenore. “Remembered Images and Trauma: A Psychology of the Supernatural.” The Psychoanalytic Study of the Child 40, no. 1 (1985): 493-33.
Vuong, Ocean. Night Sky with Exit Wounds. Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 2016.
——— On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. New York: Penguin Press, 2019.
———“Surrendering.” New Yorker, May 30, 2016. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/06/06/ocean-vuong-immigrating-into- english

Christos Kalli studied American Literature at the University of Cambridge and is now a Ph.D. student at the University of Texas, Austin. His poems have appeared in Muzzle, Ninth Letter, the Adroit Journal, the National Poetry Review, the American Journal of Poetry, Faultline, the minnesota review, PANK, The Hollins Critic, Harpur Palate, and Dunes Review, among others. His reviews have been published or are forthcoming in the Harvard Review, The Hopkins Review, World Literature Today, and Poetry Northwest. From 2017 to 2019, he served on the editorial board of The Adroit Journal and from 2020 to 2021 he was an Associate Poetry Editor for Stirring. Visit him at christoskalli.com.