Ocean Vuong – Night Sky With Exit Wounds

Full Disclosure: None. New poet to me. Review copy purchased with help from supporters on Patreon. Just a wee heads up that the book and the review discuss domestic violence and implied sexual abuse.

Review: There’s a wonderful podcast and interview with Vuong on LateNightLibrary where Vuong argues that all of a poet’s subject matter should be in service of the questions the poet wants to explore; the most important part of the process, then, is having a clear idea of what those questions are. In the most general sense, the poems in Night Sky… are concerned with how the past informs and shapes the present, how one moment irrevocably changes the next; while it’s possible make a rudimentary catalogue of ‘father’, ‘mother’, ‘war’, ‘love/sex’, ‘America’ poems, the collection is way more interested in how these categories overlap or intersect. As Christopher Soto points out in a review in Lambda Literary, Vuong repeats the same building-block images – ‘moon, sun, mouth, lips, teeth, body, time … fire, burn, black, bright … kneeling, kissing, hair’ – across a multitude of poems, giving the impression that, despite a great variety of tone, form, or narrative perspective, the whole book is cut from the same cloth. A cynic might suggest this is an indulgence of the poet’s writing tics, but it feels purposeful: the first and last poems in the book feature the narrator on their knees, the former in an act of voyeurism (‘I watched, through the keyhole, not / the man showering, but the rain // falling through him’), the latter in an act of apparently humdrum, loveless sex (‘my knees / scraping hardwood, / another man leaving / into my throat’). Elsewhere in the collection, kneeling figures appear with notable regularity, in postures of surrender, prayer, love, or in one memorable image, saving a beached dolphin. I think the book’s vocabulary behaves in the same way as its themes – the reader is given a followable thread that allows us to see the same image or person or thing from different angles, challenges us to read again what seemed to be wholly comprehensible. Above all else, I think, Night Sky With Exit Wounds is a book that refuses to accept simplified formulations of complicated ideas; the act of allowing a person to mean multiple things at once seems synonymous with the book’s conception of love.

3 JP

More on that later, maybe, as to focus too much on the book’s theoretical framework would be to misrepresent a lush, visceral, human book of poetry. The collection features several poems about or in the voice of the poet’s father; it is clear from these pieces that he is capable of committing horrific acts of violence, not least towards his own family. Vuong, however, does not paint him as a pure and irredeemable monster: in the poem ‘In Newport I Watch My Father Lay His Cheek to a Beached Dolphin’s Wet Back’ he ‘kneels to gather the wet refugee / into his arms’; in ‘Always & Forever’, he leaves his son a handgun, for ‘when you need me most’ – the poem regards this gesture with remarkable ambiguity, managing to convey both its intended warmth and its chilling, estranging effect without explicitly passing judgement either way. The poem notes how ‘His thumb, / still damp from the shudder between mother’s / thighs, kept circling the mole above my brow’. I don’t think this is a lurid detail for shock value; I think this is consistent with Vuong’s strategy of seeing multiple motivations in action simultaneously, or his depiction of his father as someone who does not draw, or at least enact, clear distinctions between sex, violence and familial love. Vuong writes with a narrative efficiency many short story writers would sell a kidney for. In ‘Prayer for the Newly Damned’ the poet witnesses his father ‘pressing a shank to another man’s throat’, strongly identifying with his victim:

‘Am I wrong to love
those eyes, to see something so clear
& blue – beg to remain clear
& blue?’

Later, there is ‘a boy kneeling / in a house with every door kicked open / to summer’, with ‘A knife touching / Your finger lodged inside the throat’. The rendering of the scene –  which for want of more detail seems to imply the poet being physically threatened by his father – is characteristic of Vuong’s style. Simply spelling out the act of violence might fix it in realistic space far too neatly; giving the reader just enough detail to piece the scene together themselves (particularly in light of information supplied in other poems) allows or requires a more engaged kind of meaning-creation on the part of the reader. It also permits disbelief or wilful ignorance; the active decision to believe your own senses, to acknowledge what is certainly present in the text, is itself a hugely uncomfortable, perhaps even painful experience. Vuong articulates the silences and elisions that trauma occasions to powerful effect.

3 JP

The act of witness seems a vital cog in the book’s engine, the poet as a keeper of memories and stories both personal and historical, including several pieces in which Vuong watches his parents or speaks in their voices. What’s remarkable about many of these early pieces is how seamlessly Vuong sidelines the observational self; the poems’ narratives are given central focus, and whatever impressions the reader gets about the real-life poet are fleeting, and only substantiated much later in the book. ‘Aubade with Burning City’ sets the evacuation of Saigon in April 1975 against another obliquely written scene of (probably) an American officer and a young Vietnamese woman, (or girl, given the recurring image of ‘Milkflower petals […] like pieces of a girl’s dress’):

‘He fills a teacup with champagne, brings it to her lips.
Open, he says.
She opens.’

In ‘Headfirst’, the poet’s mother  asserts:

‘When they ask you
where you’re from,
tell them your name
was fleshed from the toothless mouth
of a war-woman.
That you were not born
but crawled, headfirst –
into the hunger of dogs. My son, tell them
the body is a blade that sharpens
by cutting.’

Late in the collection, in the poem ‘Notebook Fragments’, Vuong notes:

‘An American soldier fucked a Vietnamese farmgirl. Thus my mother exists.
Thus I exist. Thus no bombs = no family = no me.

Yikes.’

Although, as the latter poem’s title suggests, this is one thought among many, and an uncharacteristically blunt one at that, these lines make one of the book’s latent ideas explicit, that each of what could be considered its central ‘themes’ are deeply connected. The murderous masculinity-cult of 1968’s John Wayne-in-Vietnam movie The Green Berets (‘Self Portrait as Exit Wounds’) feeds into the power dynamics between the nameless American and Vietnamese characters in ‘Aubade with Burning City’. The suffering brought upon Vietnamese women informs their conception of the body as ‘a blade that sharpens / by cutting’; implicitly, it dulls by not cutting, it becomes less of a weapon the less it is used as a weapon (maybe it’s no accident that literal knives appear in the hand of the poet’s father throughout the book). The poet’s renderings of love are haunted by this idea, the physical body given primacy over the emotional states it inhabits; in ‘Eurydice’, the speaker self-rebukes, ‘Silly me. I thought love was real / and the body imaginary’. In ‘Because it’s Summer’:

‘the boy who finds you
beautiful only because you’re not
a mirror’

while ‘Notebook Fragments’ has a scene with a ‘high school English teacher’: ‘I could eat you he said, brushing my cheek with his knuckles’; ‘A pillaged village is a fine example of perfect rhyme. He said that.’ The undercurrent of each of these poems is similar to Claudia Rankine’s rendering of the present-self and the historical-self suddenly and disastrously meeting; these actions by the English teacher might be benevolently meaningless from his perspective, but for Vuong the entire sexual encounter is tainted by historical significance:

‘I kissed it [the teacher’s scrotum]

lightly, the way one might kiss a grenade
before hurling it into the night’s mouth.’

It’s worth noting that the book references dissident political poets such as Nguyễn Chí Thiện and Edmond Jabès, and blends into its lyrics a kind of compassionate resistance, insisting on love in the face of violence. Where love is not set upon by historical forces, it is threatened by the toxic mores of contemporary America. ‘Seventh Circle of Earth’ is written entirely in footnotes, as reference numbers hover on a blank page, in the voice of a gay man murdered in Dallas. A poem whose content borders on the downright halcyon:

‘& this is how we danced: our mothers’
white dresses spilling from our feet, late August

turning our hands dark red. & this is how we loved:
a fifth of vodka & an afternoon in the attic, your fingers

through my hair – my hair a wildfire’

is titled ‘Homewrecker’. There are precious few moments in Night Sky… in which uncomplicatedly positive moments of love emerge unscathed.

1 JP

After all of this, the book’s penultimate poem is ‘Someday I’ll Love Ocean Vuong’, taken from fellow Copper Canyon poet Roger Reeves’ poem ‘Someday I’ll Love Roger Reeves’ which itself is taken from Frank O’Hara’s poem ‘Katy’, written in the voice of a six-year-old who says “someday I’ll love Frank O’Hara’. That the poem has already passed through several hands is part of its meaning, the perhaps never-ending process of learning to love someone whose culture has decided should not be loved. The poem itself does not have a logical narrative progression, and is more akin to ‘Notebook Fragments’ than the book’s other accounts of (imaginative) memory. It places more significance on individual turns of phrase:

‘Ocean, don’t be afraid.
The end of the road is so far ahead
it is already behind us.’

‘The most beautiful part
of your body is wherever
your mother’s shadow falls’

‘Here’s a desk
with the gimp leg & a brick
to make it last. Yes, here’s a room
so warm & blood-close,
I swear, you will wake –
& mistake these walls
for skin.’

That the poem’s closing image is a combination of writing-room and body feels like a culmination of the book’s intent. That a book that spends so long detailing suffering and loss should have at its climactic moment such an image of defiant persistence is a little extraordinary.

3 PF

Vuong’s palette is rich and sensuous, and, as Soto’s list of motifs implies, his poetic vocabulary often leans towards the personal/confessional/generally sincere. Whether you can tolerate occasional stumbles into political heavy-handedness (‘Of Thee I Sing’ is written in the voice of Jackie Onassis and maybe lands too heavily on its closing ‘American dreams’),or metaphors that don’t quite stick the landing (e.g. ‘my hand, filled with blood thin / as a widow’s tears’ from ‘Thanksgiving 2006’), will very much colour your enjoyment of the collection. The flipside is that when these poems do get their calibrations right, as in ‘Anaphora as Coping Mechanism’ or ‘Queen Under The Hill’, they are heartwrenching, all heightened realities and emotional devastation. That said, Night Sky With Exit Wounds is not a tragedy-memoir, and it would be a mistake to equate emotional turmoil with aesthetic achievement. The book’s argument against racial, sexual and gender inequality is at the heart of its poetic project, from its insistence that ‘Yes, you have a country’, its acknowledgement that ‘from men, I learned to praise the thickness of walls. / From women, / I learned to praise’, to, in ‘Ode to Masturbation’, ‘sometimes / your hand / is all you have / to hold / yourself to this / world’. Given the book’s stakes, it may well be that heartfelt sincerity is the only viable option, a very real survival strategy or coping mechanism.

3 LW

Okay, tinfoil hat time and then we’ll call it a day. I think Night Sky With Exit Wounds might owe as much to musical composition as poetry. There are so many recurring themes and leitmotifs that a musical kind of attention to patterned meaning seems to be meaningfully rewarded. (I might well have reached the saturation point for exegesis and am projecting hugely, but the book seems to bear this theory out.) To show you what I mean, take the shifting meaning of the eponymous ‘exit wounds’. They appear in several poems, each instance slightly modified from the one before: its first appearance is in ‘Always & Forever’, a literal gun held by Vuong which makes him ‘wonder if an entry wound in the night // would make a hole wide as morning’. Second, it informs an entire poem, ‘Self Portrait as Exit Wounds’, in which a series of tableaux from the Vietnam War impact on the poet’s self-conception, Vuong finally ‘lower[ing] myself between the sights’. In the excellent ‘To My Father / To My Future Son’, the stars are ‘the exit wounds / of every / misfired word’. Finally, in ‘Logophobia’, ‘I drill the ink / into a period. / The deepest hole, / where the bullet, / after piercing / my father’s back, / has come / to rest’. In a book so full of guns, bullets, wounds and generally being violently passed through, that the final word on the matter (indeed, where the matter rests) should be in a moment in which bullet and word are synonymous, seems significant. To say what, exactly, would probably put too fine a point on it, and I’m sure you’ll have ideas of your own; my main point here is that the book seems to encourage this awareness of repeated significant phrases or images (try it with kneeling figures, maybe, or what the book sets on fire), interconnected verbal patterns that mirror the interconnectedness of the book’s themes.

Tl;dr: In any case, Night Sky With Exit Wounds is a bit of a special book, and the folks at Jonathan Cape have pulled off a tidy bit of business by signing him up. Highly recommended.

Further reading:

Interview and discussion on Late Night Library Podcast

Michiko Kakutani – review in the New York Times

Stephan Delbos – review in Body Literature

Christopher Soto – review in Lambda Literary

Jeff Nguyen – review in The Rumpus

Interview with Vuong (in Vietnamese) with Vien Dong Daily

PS: If you enjoyed this and would like to help me keep doing this, please have a look at my Patreon. You can pledge as little as $1/month, and you can cancel at any time. Thanks for reading.

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