diaCRITIC Eric Nguyen reviews Ocean Vuong’s debut poetry collection, Night Sky with Exit Wounds.
Night Sky With Exit Wounds, Ocean Vuong’s much anticipated and already lauded debut collection, starts quietly. In the opening poem (“Threshold”), the speaker watches “through the keyhole/not the man showering, but the rain/falling through him[.]” It’s a secret moment, a taboo one perhaps, as he holds his “clutched breath” behind the door, watching and waiting. Yet in this clandestine act, the speaker still coaxes his readers in with him to watch water like “guitar strings snapping/over his globed shoulder.” It’s not until we turn the page that we learn the cost of looking “was to lose/your way back” with “eyes/wide open.” The poems ends almost abruptly, the couplets giving way to a single-lined stanza.
It’s a fitting introduction to a book that at its core is about losing oneself in the process of observing human catastrophes. Calm and measured, the poem is a short intake of air before the dive into deeper waters, the beginning of a longer journey. For Vuong, it’s a world uncomfortably punctuated by violence, book-ended on one side by colonialism in Vietnam and on the other by what we see today.
In “Aubade with Burning City,” the Fall of Saigon is juxtaposed to the warm voice of Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas.” The result is already intense images transformed into something sinister. A dog’s “hind legs/crushed into the shine/of a white Christmas” (emphasis in original). “The treetops glisten and children listen” and “the chief of police” is “facedown in a pool of Coca-Cola./A palm sized photo of his father soaking/beside his left ear.” We know the classic holiday song and the speaker’s interruption makes for an unmelodic reading, punctuating the grim scene and the chaos already marked on the page in lines that scatter.
These poems illustrate not only real acts of violence but the potential for it as well. In “Always & Forever,” a father’s legacy is a “Colt .45—silent & heavy/as an amputated hand.” In “A Little Closer to the Edge,” we are reminded of the possible violence in any object: “His faux Rolex, weeks/from shattering against her cheek, now dims/like a miniature moon behind her hair.”
For Vuong, violence—its memory, its presence, and its possibility—leaves a mark on the person and transforms him. The transformative power—or the disfiguring power—of violence is perhaps most apparent in the last poem of the first section, “Self-Portrait as Exit Wounds.” Through the course of twenty-two couplets, the speaker takes readers from “a sinking boat” to “a shack rusted black” in a refugee camp then to the United States where “Vietnam/[is] burning on the screen” and then back again to Vietnam, where “the sky replaced/with fire” and “the grandfather fucking/the pregnant farmgirl in the back of his army jeep[.]” It’s a poem of a speaker looking at himself and the violent history that is in his veins. In the last lines, Vuong writes himself into Vietnamese history:
Yes—let me believe I was born
to cock back this rifle, smooth & slick, like a true
Charlie, like the footsteps of ghosts misted through rain
as I lower myself between the sights–& pray
that nothing moves.
Though a speaker of Vuong’s generation would have never stepped foot on the active battlefields of the Vietnam War, it is still there. In this way, Vuong speaks for a generation of Vietnamese Americans who were born after the War but whose collective memories still haunt them. It’s a question that comes up regularly in any discussion of the present and future states of Vietnamese American literature: how do we address memories that are not ours? And what do these memories mean to our persons, our sense of self, and our identities as both Vietnamese and American?
Often, Vuong observes the conundrum of having one’s existence tied to tragedy. In these poems, the sensual body can turn ominous. “A knife on the tongue [turns]/into a tongue” in “Homewrecker.” A human shadow is replaced “by a black wolf” in “Torso of Air.”
Nowhere is this dualism between the self and history, and sensuality and violence, most present than in “Notebook Fragments,” a five-page poem that presents itself as thoughts jotted down haphazardly and randomly. Here, the stuff of daily life rubs uneasily against history: “My longest pubic hair is 1.2 inches,” the speaker notes frankly and irreverently at the poem’s beginning. Later, a family member’s war memory intrudes: “Grandma said In the war they would grab a baby, a soldier at each ankle, and pull…/Just like that” (emphasis in original). This last line, “Just like that” is immediately re-used in a more innocent context: “It’s finally spring! Daffodils everywhere./Just like that.” The poem shifts back and forth between the speaker’s present and his familial past and because of this, meaning shifts, too. It’s a tense poem that is most revealing when Vuong writes:
An American soldier fucked a Vietnamese farmgirl. Thus my mother exists.
Thus I exist. Thus no bombs = no family = no me.
Vuong’s speakers distrust the body—its origins and its weighted history: “If you are given my body,” he writes in “To My Father/To My Future Son,” “put it down.” Despite this, Vuong places all his trust in the body: it is a vehicle for hate but also one of sensuality and surrender. We see this in Vuong’s most sensual poems—“Ode to Masturbation,” “Prayer for the Newly Damned,” “Because It’s Summer” and “On Earth, We’re Briefly Gorgeous,” where he writes:
I’ll tell you how we’re wrong enough to be forgiven. How one night, after backhanding mother, then taking a chain saw to the kitchen table, my father went to kneel in the bathroom until we heard his muffled cries through the walls. & so I learned—that a man in climax was the closest thing to surrender.
Reading Night Sky with Exit Wounds it becomes obvious that Vuong has a love-hate relationship with humanity: he loves it for its tenderness, he hates it for its violence. It’s a point of tension throughout these poems as Vuong explores his familial history, his countries’ histories, and his own life. The poems in the collection, however, do coalesce into a type of balance by its end, if not finding a balm for hurt, then at least remaining optimistic. “The most beautiful part of your body,” he writes, “is where it’s headed.” For all we have ruined—with wars, domestic abuse, homophobia, racism, etc—Vuong is still hopeful; this is precisely why he’s the poet we need now more than ever. He lays bare our brutal histories and tells us, yes, we can do better.
Buy the book here.
Eric Nguyen has a MFA in creative writing from McNeese State University and BA in sociology from the University of Maryland. He has been awarded writing fellowships from the Lambda Literary Foundation and Voices of Our Nation Arts (VONA).
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