By David Nilsen
“Even my name
knelt down inside me, asking
to be spared.”
Ocean Vuong’s Night Sky with Exit Wounds (Copper Canyon Press, 2016) is a collection of quiet urgency, of grace in the midst of violence both physical and cultural, and of the unexpected ways we find beauty lying down with despair.
Vuong is a queer Vietnamese-American poet from New York whose family immigrated to the United States when he was two years old. Night Sky concerns itself largely with origins and transitions, with the way identities and locations are always in a state of shifting from one thing to another. Along the way he looks at the war, sex, family, depression, domestic violence, personhood. His skill with language is deft and agile, and it isn’t uncommon to find him at play with his words, batting them lightly like a tired kitten, just a line or two after he’s punched you in the chest with the grief and gravity of a phrase. His range extends from expressing ultimate philosophical questions to the tender eroticism of sexual intimacy.
He obsesses–pleads–throughout these poems with his own ontology. He lays out the basic tension of his origins most plainly in “Notebook Fragments,” in which he strips away any hedges from the basic problem and expresses it with rude simplicity:
“An American soldier fucked a Vietnamese farmgirl. Thus my mother exists.
Thus I exist. Thus no bombs = no family = no me.”
There would be no Ocean Vuong if some of the most devastating events of the twentieth century had not taken place. He knows this. His genesis is an unresolvable ethical dilemna, and this wobbly moral beginning extends forward to unbalance much in Vuong’s familial history and personal identity. His story is full of paradoxes. He’s a gifted poet who couldn’t read till he was eleven. His father crossed an ocean to get to America and then landed in jail after hitting his mother. He writes about violence with tremendous tenderness. His ancestry required a horrific war, but he writes about human love with soft-skinned gentleness. He contains contradictions, and it would seem he plucks the taut strings of those tensions to pen his verses.
His tenderness toward his parents is a remarkable facet of the book, particularly that he shows to his father, a man he speaks of as violent and unbalanced. In “A Little Closer to the Edge,” he writes beautifully about his own conception, and his curiosity about an act that encompassed him but did not have him in mind:
“O father, O foreshadow, press
into her–as the field shreds itself
with cricket cries. Show me how ruin makes a home
out of hip bones. O mother,
O minute hand, teach me
how to hold a man the way thirst
holds water. Let every river envy
our mouths. Let every kiss hit the body
like a season. Where apples thunder
the earth with red hooves. & I am your son.”
Vuong seems set on solving something about his father he knows he will never resolve. The first poem of the book, offset from the others as an introductory breathing of the mind into the microphone, tells of listening through the door to his father singing in the shower. He tells of his father giving him a box before going to prison, a box he would open years later to find contained a gun (“The way the barrel, aimed at the sky, must tighten / around a bullet // to make it speak”). In “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous,” perhaps the most conflicted of the poems wrestling with his father’s ghost, he writes,
“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.”
Vuong’s queer identity is explored to varying degrees throughout Night Sky, and reflects another paradox–he’s a queer man from an extremely traditional culture, and this has undoubtedly complicated things for him. He writes of illicit rendezvous as a younger person, the first explorations of sexuality. In “Seventh Circle of Earth,” one of the few poems in this collection not directly dealing with Ocean’s family or himself, he writes about a gay couple who were murdered by immolation inside their Dallas home in 2011. The two-page poem is the most structurally experimental in the book, and employs a fascinating visual device. The entire text of the poem is arranged as small-print footnotes at the bottom of the pages. The numbers for those foot notes are spattered on the larger negative space of the pages, arranged as though labeling faces in a portrait we can’t see. I found this arrangement most affecting, for reasons I haven’t entirely been able to pick apart. Is it because of the faces we will never see? Is it because the effusive love Vuong imagines for this couple, the universe they share inside their home, is reduced to nothing more than a footnote? These two men died together in their kitchen, burned to death for their love. That’s a startling thought. Somehow, Vuong manages with his structure here to convey tremendous feeling with great simplicity.
The penultimate poem of the book is titled “Someday I’ll Love Ocean Vuong,” a title adapted from a Frank O’Hara line. It ties together all the related themes of this collection–his ambivalence about his father, his devotion to his mother, his ontological dysphoria, his sexuality, his loneliness, his vocation. He finds ways to gather together words and images he’s ferreted away throughout other poems in the book–hands, mouth, wind, wings, etc. It perfectly illustrates his gift for marrying grace to grief, for speaking a hushed hope into the darkest rooms of his childhood and young adulthood. It is not the book’s conclusion though. Night Sky ends with “Devotion,” a poem taken up primarily with veiled images of a blowjob he gave a lover on New Years Day.
“Because the difference
between prayer & mercy
is how you move
& there’s nothing
more holy than holding
a man’s heartbeat between
It’s a curious way to close a collection of such weight, but not an unfitting one. It contains some of the most tender lines of the collection, and there is a sense of new dawning here, as though Ocean Vuong is maybe beginning to live the realization of what he states in the previous poem’s title; if he can’t yet love himself, maybe he can at least allow himself love, and that’s a start.
Night Sky with Exit Wounds is one of the most richly felt poetry collections I’ve read this year, and a profound personal document.
Night Sky with Exit Wounds is available now at GPL.