BAD boys in film and literature have the reputation of being daredevils, rebels against societal restrictions and other social and moral codes who, more often than not, end up becoming involved with someone who is their exact opposite – someone soft-spoken who loves books and sunsets, someone who sticks to all the rules, but enjoys the temptation of breaking them, of embracing the forbidden that is represented by the bad boy. Of course, this is a trope that is best explored in Lana Del Rey songs and a host of so-so Young Adult novels. It is not exactly what you would call rare – but it is somewhat uncommon – to see the bad boy trope represented in a genre that is as refined and abstract as poetry, and yet, last week, I uncovered a gem of a poem in the form of Ocean Vuong’s “Trevor” – on Buzzfeed of all places. This was a particularly interesting find because Buzzfeed is not where one would necessarily go for high literature, especially poetry written by a T.S. Eliot Prize winner (Vuong is one of two writers to ever win the prize for a debut collection), but there was the poem, chronicling the love story of two unlikely men, a star-crossed love poem, for sure, wrapped in beautiful imagery and sadness and waiting for readers.
“Trevor rusted pick-up and no license. / Trevor 15; blue jeans streaked with deer blood. / Trevor too fast & not enough.” The opening lines of the poem introduce quick pacing that conveys both the rushed experience of the relationship, the blur of the speaker’s time with Trevor, as well as the urgency and intensity of love itself. Importantly, the lines immediately transmit Trevor’s bad boy energy through the fact that he drives without a license, and also by associating him with (deer’s) blood. Throughout the poem, this kind of imagery is laced through, but it is often intermixed with images of a softer, more delicate version of Trevor.
For example, Vuong also writes of, “Trevor lying shirtless on the barn rafters. Trevor wearing the WWII Army helmet he bought for $7 in Wethersfield. / Trevor on his back with his dead mother’s radio to his ear, listening, listening. / …Trevor so still you had to run a finger across his cheek, to make sure. / & he twitches…” Trevor’s beauty, one aspect of his appeal, is conveyed in such imagery. The juxtaposition of the two different functions of the same devices throughout the poem indicates that the speaker is aware of why he finds Trevor attractive, as well as why it might not be such a good idea to be with Trevor. Of course, the speaker does not owe us any explanations for his choices, and yet, Vuong ensures that we are offered one, of sorts, which ultimately makes us consider the importance of Trevor and, perhaps, all bad boys in literature.
The speaker seems hesitant with regards to seeing the worth within himself. Early in the poem, referring to himself in the second person, he says that Trevor was someone “Who snuck out to meet a boy like you. Yellow & nearly nothing.” Later, the speaker goes on to say, “His tongue in your throat, Trevor speaks for you. He speaks and you flicker, a flashlight going out in his hands so he knocks you in the head to keep the bright on. He turns you this way & that to find his path through the dark woods.” These lines convey the idea of the speaker not thinking very highly of himself, specifically since he refers to himself as “yellow,” which is the racial slur usually hurled at people of Asian descent, and the fact that he thinks of himself as “nearly nothing.” The speaker seems to react, to develop, or to improve because of Trevor. He “flickers,” meaning he might have been finding his way out of the darkness of his world, he might have been coming back to life, and finding his (inner) light because of Trevor – and vice versa. This presents the importance of the bad boy figure in literature or at least one version of it. This character attracts our speakers and protagonists because the ‘bad boy,’ this person who rebels against society, the same society that the speakers/protagonists usually try to conform to, might actually also represent the finding of one’s true self – the true inner self that is tied down and restricted by societal rules, norms and expectations. Who better to unleash the version of the individual that has been bogged down by restrictions imposed by society than the ultimate rebel against society, the bad boy? Indeed, in the case of this poem, homophobia, both internalised and manifested outwardly by others are examples of people falling prey to expectations on what love should look like.
Of course, as we know, society is not some pushover that will allow people to be their true selves, and although there are times when the bad boy is able to live a happy life with the man or woman that he has plucked from the trappings of a corporate life, religion, or capitalism, there are often times when the relationship is doomed to fail. In this particular poem, for example, one does get the impression that there is a certain doom that is awaiting the speaker and Trevor. It is possible to feel the gloom in the first reading of the poem. The omens, in gunshots (“Trevor loading the shotgun two red shells at a time”), mortality (“Trevor pointing at the one-winged starling spinning in dirt…”), and abuse (“Trevor who was running from home… Eye a burst plum from his daddy’s one-arm-lost-in-the-war haymaker”) litter the poem, and like the speaker’s love for Trevor, becomes ultimately too difficult for the reader to not be able to observe it.