The poem "On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous" is the twentieth poem in Ocean Vuong's Night Sky with Exit Wounds, and it is the eighth poem of the book's second section. It also shares a title with Ocean Vuong's debut novel, released 3 years after Night Sky With Exit Wounds. In a series of vignettes of varied form and length, the poem recounts the speaker's sexual and bodily hunger for other men—as well as the combined tenderness, transgression, and violence that he has been conditioned to think reside in his encounters with these men. Across the speaker's recollections—which include his father crying after sawing the kitchen table in half, hooking up with a strange divorcee in his car, and sneaking around with a friend in childhood—the through line is impermanence, contingency, and the looming threat of erasure or disappearance. Still, as the poem ends, the speaker suggests that the passion of the body fends off such dangers with the image of him and a lover gone, with only their clothes left on the lover's porch. While the clothes remain in the realm of the real, the bodies are disappeared in a mixture of both rapture and shame.
Like the poems "Because It's Summer," "Into the Breach," and "Anaphora as Coping Mechanism" that precede it, "On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous" concerns the series of fleeting and impermanent encounters the speaker has with various men, as well as his violent desire to keep these men with him always, or else be kept by these men in perpetuity. This idea of the body as a site of craving, the threshold where unrealistic or fantastical desire meets with real limitations and consequences, has heretofore been and will afterwards continue to be one of the main themes of the collection. This poem, however, is unique in its non-linear and fragmented narration, executed in short sections, each of which begins with the marking "I." Not only is this a striking example of parataxis (i.e., the juxtaposition of fragments without clear connections), but the use specifically of I is intriguing as well. After all, are we to understand the symbol as a backslash, an admission that what precedes and follows mutually qualify each other? In this case, the I might be said to be like the body in the poem, containing a multitude of contradictions yet stubbornly persisting as itself. Alternatively, is the I a roman numeral 1, indicating that each vignette is an attempt to start over? Yet another interpretation is that the I is a first-person pronoun, providing the necessary link between sections insofar as it is the speaker's self that is the common denominator here: the self is the thing which wants to drown the lover, but also thrash beneath him "like a sparrow." Despite the author's true intention, the use of I as paratext thus subtly reinforces the ambiguity and contradiction that are on the poem's mind.
And the poem indeed has much contradiction on its mind, demonstrated not only on the level of the poem's highly varied forms, but also on a linguistic and content level. In the first section, for example, the body hungers for something impermanent that it knows it cannot keep, which might be considered contradictory. Note also in this first section how the collection's preoccupation with the interlinking of the macrocosmic and microcosmic come into play, since it is "another war" that ultimately leads the speaker's hand to be pinned to the lover's chest. In the second section, ambiguity and confusion are reinforced by the circular language of things like "pushing your body / into the river / only to be left / with yourself— / stay." The zigzagging form also reinforces this ambiguity. Also, the second section importantly introduces the idea of the body as an agent or object distinct from the self. This capaciousness of the body as a concept allows it to take on many, contradictory valences and meanings. The third section brings things back to the speaker's own family life, where he describes seeing his enraged father cry in the bathroom on his knees—a similar position to the one the speaker himself was in during "Threshold." This coexistence of violent passion and melancholic vulnerability in the body serves to further complicate the work being done in the poem to describe accurately all the implications of the speaker's lust and passion.
The next sections play with the ideas of vocalization, agency, and disappearance. In the fourth section, while the speaker is the one commanding the lover to make certain utterances, by the sixth section, he is the one who wants to disappear in the flames left by his own passion. The protean, shifting nature of both language and the self is then played with skillfully in the seventh section, where words morph into qualifications and pseudo-homonyms ("amen" and "amend"; "yes" and "yes / anyway"). These swelling and shifting images culminate in the last section, where the speaker and a lover are together in a field. The lover encompasses violence, filial piety, and passion in one breath, with one hand "under [the speaker's] shirt" and the other "pointing / [his] daddy's revolver / to the sky." The speaker knows such a perfect encompassing of these contradictions in one union cannot last and sets the field to "ticking." To stave off the time's elapsing, however, the speaker says the lover's name like a spell and turns back time, hour-by-hour. The cost of losing one's self in an imperfect union such as this one, however, is that one must disappear entirely, leaving only his clothes—along with his lover's—on the lover's front porch. Thus, the body in the poem, the language used, and the images toyed with here are all reflected nicely in the poem's title. These things are brief, transient, and contradictory, but in being all these things, they are "gorgeous" and appetizing to the speaker.