The poem "Untitled (Blue, Green, and Brown): oil on canvas: Mark Rothko: 1952" is the twenty-second poem in Ocean Vuong's Night Sky with Exit Wounds, and it is the tenth poem of the book's second section. It retells the speaker's experiences of 9/11 ("The TV said the planes have hit the buildings") while also mapping the grief and loss that the speaker feels during 9/11 to his feeling of loss over the death of a friend. As Yen Pham writes in an interview with the poet:
The poem “Untitled (Blue, Green, and Brown)” unfolds on the day the planes hit the Twin Towers, but it is also about the queer friends Vuong lost growing up to suicide and drug addiction: “my greatest accolade was to walk / across the Brooklyn Bridge / & not think of flight.” It is titled for a work of the painter Mark Rothko, who likewise took his own life. “9/11 became for me, personally, this charged spectacle of public American collapse,” Vuong says. “And in some ways it signified what I felt on the private scale as a queer American, experiencing my own American collapse. For the first time I saw a public rupture that was as devastating as a private rupture where you get a phone call and your best friend is gone because he took his own life. The scale is very different, I don’t want to compare them, but the feeling... When 9/11 happened, people openly wept in public.” It was “at once terrifying, but also I felt relief, because I felt like what I felt privately was no longer something I had to be ashamed of. Grief was something that could happen and could be performed,” though, he notes, “it’s sad that we live in a culture where it took such heavy and total blows for grief to be allowable in a public space.”
By the poem's end, this connection between public and private grief—itself a central focus of Night Sky with Exit Wounds—culminates in a stunning image of the poet as trapped within the Twin Towers, with the departed subject of the poem acting as both a salvational and suicidal window.
The poem is written in one column in a manner that is evocative of both the fallen Twin Towers and the vertical color fields of the Rothko painting. This re-enactment of tragedy in a way that simultaneously evokes both the large scale (in the case of 9/11) and the small scale (in the case of Rothko's suicide) is one of the central thrusts of the poem. When the poem opens, for example, the news of the Twin Towers's collapse is yoked by an ampersand, as if by natural consequence, to the memory of the speaker saying, "Yes because [the subject] asked [him] / to stay." Individual prayer is linked to temptation and the cosmic battle between the forces of good and evil: "Maybe we pray on our knees because god / only listens when we're this close / to the devil." The aforementioned line about the Brooklyn Bridge and flight of course evokes suicide (i.e., jumping from the bridge), but it also evokes the airplanes involved in the tragic occurrences of 9/11, thus linking the personal and the communal further. The speaker's craving for the subject of the poem intensifies throughout, with "There is so much I want to tell you." changing into "There is so much / I need to tell you" by the poem's end. This is most likely because of the speaker's realization of the finality of the subject's suicide, given voice through the phrase "I only earned / one life. & I took nothing. Nothing." The play on words here, of course, being that "taking one's own life" is a euphemism for suicide.
The poem's conclusion resolves these tensions in a striking manner. The speaker imagines himself "waiting in the room / made of broken mockingbirds. Their wings throbbing / into four blurred walls," an image which, though complex, seems most directly to be referring to the Towers themselves (with the mockingbirds working as stand-ins for the planes, which blur the walls and sky with smoke). That the speaker's departed friend/poetic subject is in this room, on the threshold of life and death, calls back to Vuong's larger fascination with the body as a site of transfer or encounter between opposing forces. Finally, the fact that the subject is "the window" of this imaginary room also serves a dual purpose: while they are the sole thing that allows the speaker to see outward from his own tragedy, they are also the thing that may facilitate his own suicide. Indeed, given the fact that many people trapped in the Twin Towers on 9/11 chose to take their own lives by jumping from the windows, the window image cannot be parsed as solely positive. Like the body and the sky, the window is also a threshold poised between realms of opposite meaning or connotation.