vuong teaches the beauty in tearing down “the great wall”

Posted on Monday, November 26, 2012

When I was a little girl, I loved to make forts.  Forts in my bedroom, forts in the living room, forts in the back yard – no matter where there was a little block of space, I’d find a spot for a fort.  I loved the solitude, secrecy and serenity nestling below a stuffy blanket and stacked pillows.  As a grown woman, I find I’ve still constructed my share of “forts.”  Over the years, I’ve replaced piles of pillows with unanswered emails, my husband has become my security blanket, and now I can lock people out of my house, not just my room.  But, even in my hermit-like happiness, I’ve learned that building forts can be a bit lonely at times.  As an introvert, I’m constantly learning the balance of fort building and fort breaking.


Vuong, a fellow introvert, teaches me about his form of sheltering through his own constructing and collapsing of his own sort of fort.  For Vuong, he’s spent years hiding, not in forts, but behind walls.  “I have always been an introvert and even a loner at times,” shares Vuong.  But one might not know of Vuong’s shy nature.  As a regular reader at the Willow Glen Poetry Readings and editor of Caesura, he’s immersed himself in recurrent and sophisticated socialization.  Vuong tells me,


 Poetry allows me to reach out and share my world with others.  I have always believed that while writing is a solitary activity, poetry is essentially about connecting with others.  When you write, you want it to touch another person with your words.


Many readers come to the monthly readings to connect, to celebrate, to share, to listen, to learn, to meditate in the spirit of poetry. Vuong comes “to make sense of the world—and make sense of my own life.”  One particular poem Vuong shares is “Great Wall,” a special poem that brings him back to a particular moment in his life.  During his final year of his MFA degree in Fresno, Vuong parallels the literal building of walls with an internal sheltering as a timid, introverted person.  “The poem at first glance is about building walls, and this was actually what I did,” says Vuong.  But as one begins to see through the cracks, a beautiful and larger message emerges in the poem.

Read Vuong’s poem and then he’ll share stanza by stanza how he transformed from building walls to block himself from others to building trust in others with the miraculous medium of poetry.


The Great Wall


My landlord talks too much.

He likes to talk about history—

the Great Wall of China, he tells me,

was begun in the Third Century B.C.

to keep out Mongols and barbarians.

I am thinking of building a wall myself—

of rock and stone even.

I planted a flowerbox, a small garden,

a small world of my own.

But in the night, someone pulled out my flowers.

The barbarian left me broken

stems, a tangle of upturned roots.

So I planted my garden again—

wax-white lilies, tulip bulbs and fragile ferns.

I buried them all in a bed of sharp rocks and stones.

No one touched my flowerbox again,

but nothing there ever bloomed.

Last night, I heard the man

who lives above me crying.

Had his lover left him?

Was he all alone?  I didn’t care to know,

but the walls between us were so thin,

I kept hearing his sleeplessness.

I kept wanting to cry.


Written by Vuong Vu.  Originally published in Poet Lore.

New to poetry or don’t understand Vuong’s deeper message?  He shares what this means in a larger sense stanza by stanza, showing how much we can all relate to his situation.


 I had just moved into an old apartment and was still living in my introverted cocoon. I was not interested in making friends or engaging myself with other people.


Vuong continues explaining the inspiration behind the first stanza of his poem: “I had an overly friendly landlord who was always trying to engage in conversation with his tenants.  He was an old man, and I think he was lonely perhaps.  He was always making conversation with me about the most random topics, informing me about Chinese history, water heaters, etc.  I was polite to him, but I didn’t care to talk to him about off-the-wall topics.”


Moving into the background behind the second stanza, Vuong explains, “As depicted in the poem, I had a flowerbox that was destroyed one night.  Someone pulled out all of my flowers, and this just added to the distrust that I felt about the world.”  This unkind instance initially prompted Vuong to pile another brick on his wall to shelter him from the hardships of life.  “However, as time went on,” he explains, “the walls that I had been building between me and other people started to wear thin.  I was becoming less and less introverted, and I was starting to talk to my neighbors and even made friends.  Slowly, I came to a realization that I was at home in the world, that everywhere I went, I was at home.  I trusted the world more.”


In the last part of the poem, Vuong “tried to depict the wearing down of walls and barriers that we put up between each other.”  Living in an apartment complex, tenants often learn a lot about their neighbors.  He says, “I woke up early one morning and heard my upstairs neighbor crying uncontrollably.  He had a tumultuous relationship with his girlfriend; they were always fighting and making up, and one night he was crying because she finally left him.  I just felt profoundly sad at that moment, not for him particularly, but because I knew that losing love is sad for anyone.  I started to cry.”  In sum,


The ‘Great Wall’ that we build between each other creates for us a prison.  Only until we break down these walls and learn to share our lives with others, we are, in essence, prisoners of the walls we build.  To be a rowdy prisoner is to live in a trustworthy world.


Through the transformative and eye-opening experience of poetry, this introvert connects with the world.  This rowdy prisoner has lowered his wall brick by brick and courageously opened his heart to the world.  He’s dared to see what’s on the other side.  Perhaps soon, inspired by Vuong, I’ll invite someone inside my fort with me, and even someday, I’ll take down my towering pillows and invite many to join in my sacred space.  Recognizing the beauty in sharing and exposing our hearts brings us closer to the world and reminds us, we’re never as alone as we may feel.


Read more of Vuong’s poems from the Willow Glen Poetry Readings



feature image, vintage blues, provided by Joy StClaire


  1. I’m so happy to read this today! Vuong is an incredible spirit, and your post is a testament to it. Thank you for touching my day with poetry, most especially his.

    • Hi Andrea,

      I’m so pleased Vuong’s poetry touched you. I am also grateful to witness Vuong’s readings and share them with others like you. Cheers to the beautiful power of words!

  2. That poem is incredible. Vuong is not a poet I am currently familiar with, but now I would like to be!
    Loved your post as well as the poem.

    • Rebekah!

      Thank you for your lovely note and for reading Vuong’s article. I have recently been notified that Vuong has started his own poetry press (

      He has also included a link to more of his wonderful poetry:

      I encourage you to read it and we can share some of our favorites. I love his love for flowers and the wonderful ability to create so much emotion with his fondness and memories through flowers.

There comes a time when one realizes the cage was unlocked all along. Learn More

Copyright © 2012-2016 Rowdy Prisoners. All Rights Reserved.