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Poem of the Week: Ocean Vuong’s “Toy Boat” Reflects on the Tragic Death of 12-Year Old Tamir Rice

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The family of Tamir Rice was recently awarded a settlement after a police officer fatally shot him

In this episode of PoetryNow, Ocean Vuong remembers Tamir Rice, the 12-year old boy killed by police in Cleveland, OH in 2014. Tamir was seated on a swing in a park, playing with a toy gun, when he was shot by a 26-year old police officer, Timothy Loehmann. Rice’s family filed a federal lawsuit, and in April of 2016, a U.S. District Court ordered the city of Cleveland to pay the family a $6 million dollar settlement, according to CNN.

Vuong wrote “Toy Boy” as a response to Tamir’s death, saying, “I did not want to repeat the occurrences of the news.” Because Tamir was playing with a toy gun at the time he was apprehended by officers and then killed, Vuong muses over how something that’s “just a toy” can lead to very dangerous games. The poet also connects the violence Rice suffered with violence he experienced in his own life.

Violence has become “a part of the American psyche,” he says. “Poetry offers us a moment when it’s okay that no answer is ever certain. Violence is both historic and personal.”

Hear Vuong read and discuss “Toy Boat” by listening below.


Toy Boat

For Tamir Rice

yellow plastic
black sea

eye-shaped shard
on a darkened map

no shores now
to arrive — or
depart
no wind but
this waiting which
moves you

as if  the seconds
could be entered
& never left

toy boat — oarless
each wave
a green lamp
outlasted

toy boat
toy leaf  dropped
from a toy tree
waiting

waiting
as if the sp-
arrows
thinning above you
are not
already pierced
by their own names

Source: Poetry (April 2016)


More About theAuthor

Born in Saigon, poet and editor Ocean Vuong was raised in Hartford, Connecticut, and earned a BFA at Brooklyn College (CUNY). In his poems, he often explores transformation, desire, and violent loss. In a 2013 interview with Edward J. Rathke, Vuong discussed the relationship between form and content in his work, noting that “Besides being a vehicle for the poem’s movement, I see form as … an extension of the poem’s content, a space where tensions can be investigated even further. The way the poem moves through space, its enjambment or end-stopped line breaks, its utterances and stutters, all work in tangent with the poem’s conceit.” Acknowledging the ever-increasing number of possible directions each new turn in a poem creates, Vuong continued, “I think the strongest poems allow themselves to collapse completely before even suggesting resurrection or closure, and a manipulation of form can add another dimension to that collapse.”
Ocean Vuong - Photo

Vuong is the author of the poetry collections Night Sky With Exit Wounds (2016) and the chapbooks No (2013) and Burnings (2010), which was an Over the Rainbow selection by the American Library Association. His work has been translated into Hindi, Korean, Russian, and Vietnamese. His honors include fellowships from the Elizabeth George Foundation, Poets House, Kundiman, and the Saltonstall Foundation for the Arts as well as an Academy of American Poets Prize, an American Poetry Review Stanley Kunitz Prize for Younger Poets, a Pushcart Prize, and a Beloit Poetry Journal Chad Walsh Poetry Prize.

In 2014, Vuong was awarded a Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry fellowship from the Poetry Foundation. He received a Whiting Award in 2016. He lives in Queens, New York, where he serves as managing editor for Thrush Press.

  • Ann Raven

    I like Vuong’s poem and like the new poetry spot that you have on WFMT. It is interesting to hear the poets speak about their work. Thank you!