TS Eliot Prize Shortlist 2017

The TS Eliot shortlist for 2017 was announced six weeks ago. As Sandeep Parmar pointed out in her short article in The Guardian:

‘For those who have championed crucial interventions in poetry publishing, reviewing and prizes, this nearly all-white shortlist cannot help but seem inexplicably naive and regressive. […]

I believe poetry must rise to the collective challenge of our times, not merely be a curio of intimate experience. But in the absence of rigorous critical debate over what poetry must do in our era, we have come to expect rather more from prize judges than expressions of taste.’

A discussion of the function of poetry prizes requires a discussion of the theoretical function of poetry criticism, which requires analysis of the function of poetry criticism as a professional practice, which requires discussion of the power structures that promote narrow and regressive ideas about what (and who) is considered worthy of celebration. In short, in a culture with a more diverse, inclusive, curious and principled critical conversation, poetry prizes would not have to shoulder the burden of being the year’s most visible act of criticism. Such a culture remains largely aspirational.

The TS Eliot prize is a long-established and very well-funded fixture in UK poetry publishing, and any decision it makes is, inevitably, a political statement. The stakes – visibility in the national press, potentially life-changing financial reward, international prestige – are too high for it to be otherwise. This year’s statement, in the simplest terms and among other things, is that these ten books are of higher quality or greater import than anything written by a British-based poet of colour in the past year. As Parmar notes, the difficulty of arriving at a consensus does not justify the pattern of omission. I tweeted a little about who had been excluded from the shortlist, but I think it’s worth scrutinising who was considered worthy.

 

Tara Bergin – The Tragic Death of Eleanor Marx (Carcanet)

The Tragic Death of Eleanor Marx engages closely with the social and institutional structures that diminish women’s achievements and drive them from participation in public life, and is, as such, a very timely book. The poems are framed by explorations of the life and work of the eponymous translator and activist, and feature an array of time periods, locations and narrators of varying reliability. That the book never wavers on the thematic concerns holding these various threads together is an extraordinary achievement; that the book is both emotionally devastating and occasionally hilarious without severe tonal whiplash defies belief. The ideas given voice in The Tragic Death of Eleanor Marx about gender, emotional control and abuse, love and desire, are subtle, grounded in a recognisable reality, one which doesn’t shy away from confusion and the friction of the mundane. On top of its conceptual and internal complexities, the artistry at work in The Tragic Death of Eleanor Marx is all but peerless. Bergin has an ear for the unsettling, for dissonantly full rhyme, for rhythms of speech which veer off course with little warning and to great effect. It’s difficult to see in what capacity the other books on the shortlist can compete with The Tragic Death of Eleanor Marx.

Full Review of The Tragic Death of Eleanor Marx

 

Caroline Bird – In These Days of Prohibition (Carcanet)

Bird’s oeuvre is a wonderful example of what can be achieved with ostensibly bright, colourful, welcoming surfaces, work that signals loudly and clearly something very different to what is going on under the bonnet. The internal realities that underwrite the drama in In These Days of Prohibition are complex and more distinctly defined than in Bird’s previous collections, and her willingness to combine a certain understated frankness (thinking particularly of ‘Beatification’ and ‘Ms Casanova on Life Support’) with the magic realism that has always been her poems’ engine-room makes space for some truly special work. It’s rare to see mental illness, addiction and doomed romance handled so lightly, with such a delicate touch, with such obvious care for the experiences of the reader. The love poems which make up a fair proportion of In These Days of Prohibition repeatedly manage that intricate balance between sentimentality and sincerity, expressions of unglamorous but powerful emotional architecture.

Full review of In These Days of Prohibition

 

Douglas Dunn – The Noise of a Fly (Faber)

Dunn’s career has been long and hugely successful, and it would take a harsh critic to question his credentials as one of Scotland’s finest lyricists. Until the TS Eliot prize institutes an award specifically for lifetime achievement, however – and there’s no reason why it shouldn’t – each book on this shortlist must be taken at its own merit. (The number of times I’ve heard questionable decisions justified with ‘but their last book should’ve won’ is deeply frustrating.) The Noise of a Fly begins strongly, with painstaking ruminations on aging, deft and surprising turns of phrase and image (‘I don’t feel like Sisyphus, I feel like his boulder’), and thoughtful investigations into the art of poetry itself. But this quality is not sustained throughout, and too often lapses into prosaic and nonspecific complaints about the state of the world or the poet’s own diminished energy; the latter shows admirable self-awareness, but its repetition makes for unedifying reading. Dunn’s poetic voice is personable, kind, principled, ‘Facing what happens without self-pity’, but a handful of excellent lyrics aside, The Noise of a Fly is not up to his own high standard.

 

Leontia Flynn – The Radio (Cape)

I can’t pretend to be objective about Flynn’s work; her poems’ inner realities and vernacular are often very familiar, their scepticism and self-deprecation blended with hard-won optimism touches many personal nerves. In ‘Out’, for example (‘The opposite of simply sitting about / in your head, like an egg in an eggshell. That was ‘Out’.’), I could swear blind I’d been to the same pubs in my teens; knowing the size of Belfast, I probably was. The Radio marks, I think, a formal and substantial moving-on from Flynn’s previous books; this new collection is, in many ways, marked by a weariness markedly at odds with the rambunctious irreverence of Flynn’s 2004 debut, These Days. The overlaps in content between the first book and the most recent, however, feel like a kind of coming full circle; Flynn has a wonderful talent for putting into words the powerful connections built between friends, shared experiences of what, on paper, should be all the dull stuff of the day. Her argument that ‘Poetry is bullshit egotism’, fits perfectly into a collection, a whole body of work, that asserts that the quotidian is sacred, that what will save us is ‘the faint persistent hum of the first Real Thing’. The pieces about the poet’s mother, the regret and gratitude for an inner life never fully respected by the poet’s teenage self, are truly heart-breaking. Though the book occasionally has a scrapbooky feel – a series of energetic renderings of Catullus rub shoulders with a McGonigalesque piece in the voice of a Dairy Council spokesman – The Radio feels like Flynn firing on all cylinders, a book that has a clear sense of its emotional stakes and a drive to convey them with care and candour and a joyful sense of humour.

 

Roddy Lumsden – So Glad I’m Me (Bloodaxe)

It’s perhaps a poor reflection on the state of inter-generational poetic communication round these parts that one of the most striking things about So Glad I’m Me is its formal and aesthetic affinities with younger poets. Which would be purely academic if not for the book’s deep thoughtfulness, its constant attempts at exploring shared emotional states, the way it values empathy and permitting complex and difficult thoughts their full complexity (‘For people merely think they only / think they think that / no one thinks like them’). There are also few male poets who can write love poetry with Lumsden’s blend of delicacy and earthliness (‘The sherbet of liaison. Our twosome walks, too few.’), and with a pure joy in the tactility of language:

‘co-ordinates of murmur or yowl
Emperors, you did not favour it. You clambered
and rode the horse and whipped it to snorting
when it wanted the meadow, the sugared grass,
the tale of there not being a tale, some nothing.’

These pleasures aside, the book runs more than a little long at just under a hundred pages, and the middle third’s memories of teenagerhood and music lack a little of the conceptual and emotional urgency of the opening and closing lyrics. The less said about a rhyme between Coldplay and foreplay the better. That said, there are beautiful, unexpected moments throughout So Glad I’m Me, a commitment to asking uncomfortable questions of one’s own place in the world, and of the means by which one navigates it.

 

Robert Minhinnick – Diary of the Last Man (Carcanet)

There is nothing so concerning to Diary of the Last Man than man himself. The opening sequence is the account of a man in the post-catastrophe, ostensibly the sole human survivor (the circumstances of his survival go unexplored). The poem’s initial rumination on spirituality in times of distress soon becomes a kind of wish fulfilment in which the speaker breaks into Downing Street hacks the Prime Minister’s computer to sneer at his [sic] emails. The second long sequence, ‘Mouth to Mouth: A Recitation Between Two Rivers’, gives a similar focus to human subjectivity; its repeated query about whether the speaker ‘belongs’ in the poem’s landscape renders nature as a granter or withholder of a single man’s self-actualisation. At one point the speaker announces, without introduction or context, ‘Choughs’ to a passing woman in the middle of nowhere and delights in how she ‘looked alarmed’. In ‘The Body’, the speaker finds himself near people with tattoos and piercings, and decides to imagine that ‘there were wedding rings through their foreskins; / there were swastikas in their labia.’ What unites all the above is the speaker’s assumption of centrality, normativity; those unlike the speaker must be policed, corrected. Aesthetically, Minhinnick seems drawn towards the most forcefully striking line, thought or image, irrespective of the impact it has on the poem. A piece about the first Gulf War, for example, revels in the spectacle of a ‘fog of flesh’ and ‘bodies foaming like phosphorus’. What these images reveal about the nature of war or grief is undone by the act of recreating violence, making a scene; that the poem’s political commentary goes little further than ‘Think of a smart bomb. / Not so smart’ is difficult to forgive. Diary of the Last Man is content to reach for rhetorical power, reluctant to wield it responsibly.

 

Michael Symmons Roberts – Mancunia (Cape)

The lyrics in Mancunia are characterised by smooth rhythms, a rich, painterly eye, and a teacher’s impulse to manoeuvre the reader along the poems’ intricate watercourses. Roberts’ speakers are immaculately turned out, effortlessly erudite, but their suavity comes at the cost of a more satisfying exploration of uncomfortable or disreputable ideas; I expected a few more socio-political brass tacks from a collection that frames itself as an essay into a Manchester of the mind. When the collection does dip into the specific (street names, named shops), the demands of the poems’ smooth lyric flow prevent the poem from slowing down enough to shake off its abstracting distance, its bird’s eye view. Roberts’ work in Mancunia is marked by certain aesthetic tics, such as its repeated catalogues of unusual, beautiful objects, taking a concept (e.g. unfolding a cloth) and playing it out to its magical, but logical, conclusion (the cloth unfolds to cover an entire county), or reader-addressed imperatives (‘Sit down’, ‘let / me lead you’). There are plenty of pleasures to be found in the collection, but for all its technical gifts, Mancunia left me a little lukewarm.

 

James Sheard – The Abandoned Settlements (Cape)

The Abandoned Settlements is fifty-odd pages of James Sheard’s enthusiastically heteronormative sexual ideations. Read on for fine pieces like ‘James Sheard Would Like You To Know That He Not Only Fucks But Gives Head’, ‘James Sheard Is Thinking About You Masturbating’, and ‘James Sheard Knows You Dumped Him But Have You Considered That You Are Wrong’. There’s a blessed passage from p31-35 in which Sheard doesn’t mention sex. On p36: ‘the cunt crude and flared’. While it’s tempting to make light of yet another in a dismal list of dull, emotionally juvenile and shamelessly misogynist books achieving national renown and call it a day, the extensive conversations around #MeToo demand a better calibre of response. It has become impossible to ignore the pervasiveness and acuteness of violence against women in our community, both aesthetic and embodied, and it is high time that when a poet tells us exactly what he thinks, we believe him, and act accordingly.

 

Jacqueline Saphra – All My Mad Mothers (Nine Arches)

Saphra’s inclusion in the shortlist was a serious highlight. Not only for a representative of the consistently groundbreaking Nine Arches, but for a book that quietly, carefully tore my heart to shreds. All My Mad Mothers is an exploration in part of Saphra’s youth in the London of the late seventies and early eighties, in part of the life of her artist mother. The poems are often domestic, close-focus vignettes that suggest no small amount of pain and trauma below the surface, but Saphra has a gift for ushering the reader into a place of hurt with often overwhelming kindness, or a wry recognition of the absurdity that sometimes accompanies suffering. The unintrusive calm of the narrative voice only breaks on a handful of occasions, and these are some of the book’s finest individual lines: ‘not saying you have a broken heart, but if you ever do, that’s a lovely, normal thing’; ‘I miss you. I wish I was a skink’. All My Mad Mothers is remarkable for its refusal to treat its subject matter as something in need of excuse or explanation, that expects the reader to approach these accounts with the same openness as they are presented. The collection is one of only a few on this shortlist that works beautifully as a realised unity, and I think it’s the consistency of Saphra’s narrative voice, its dedication and love for its subject matter, that sustains a full collection’s worth of exploration. It’s massively heartening that a book of this character and quality has been recognised at the highest level.

 

Ocean Vuong – Night Sky with Exit Wounds (Cape)

Vuong’s collection was big news even before it had a UK publisher, and it’s not surprising to see it here, not least due to his Forward Prize win. It’s been four years since a poet of colour was shortlisted for the TS Eliot Prize without first being shortlisted for the Forward. But this shouldn’t distract from Night Sky With Exit Wounds being a truly outstanding book. It achieves a level of thematic consistency that’s rare for first collections, and there’s a gentle, yet unmistakeable sense of purpose to the way the poems return and return to questions of immigrant identity, familial love, sexual pleasure, among others. There’s a wry humour to many of the poems which undercuts and makes a lot of the historical violence that informs the poet’s present easier to digest, as in ‘Notebook Fragments’ (‘An American soldier fucked a Vietnamese farmgirl. Thus my mother exists. / Thus I exist. Thus no bombs = no family = no me. // Yikes.’); the intimate and structural violence present throughout the book is neither shied away from nor indulged. For all this, Night Sky With Exit Wounds is, I think, an essentially hopeful collection, one that fights for healing on a personal level without ignoring the social forces that would prevent it.

Full review of Night Sky With Exit Wounds

 

Out of the ten shortlisted books I count one that has no business being included and three highly questionable selections. I acknowledge that this is as personal and subjective a response as wondering why Kayo Chingonyi’s Kumuanda, Nuar Alsadir’s trailblazing Fourth Person Singular and extraordinary work from Emily Berry and Pascale Petit (to name a few) did not make the cut while so much middling work from white men did. When the white men on the judging panel (average age: 58) are of an almost identical generation to the white men on the shortlist (average age: 60), however, the privileging of familiar subjectivities is impossible to ignore. It’s difficult to look at the history of the prize and expect bravery or a commitment to inclusivity, but I refuse to accept this very obvious failure without comment.

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Some Books That Came Out This Year (Or So) Which I Enjoyed For A Variety Of Reasons And To Varying Degrees

2016 has been shit. On individual terms a number wonderful things have happened, but it’s hard to look back with any fondness on a stretch where so much evil has been visited upon so many. A lot of illusions have been broken forever, a lot of hard truths have emerged about the kind of fight we’re in for. We’ve been challenged to put our hearts, minds, bodies on the line for the kind of world we’ve told ourselves we believe in. It’s going to be shit! Rule of thumb number one though; there are a lot of people who’ve been fighting these fights most of their lives, and if we haven’t been listening to them before (we evidently haven’t), there’s no time like the present. I’m here, you’re here, let’s make things better, let’s be better, one day at a time.

Right so I do poetry and things so here are some poetry books I liked this year.

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Vahni Capildeo – Measures of Expatriation

If I did an end of year awards thing this would be my winner. It’s extraordinary in the most basic sense, and it’s hard to remember a book by a poet in these islands that so thoroughly questioned our understanding of what a book of lyric poetry looks like, or what it can do. It’s a book I’ll turn back to for years to come. For what it’s worth, it’s also hard to think of another book that managed to carry such heavy subject matter while transmitting so much humanity, warmth and wit, or made these things such a core aspect of its enterprise. Suffice to say I want you to read Measures of Expatriation and then talk to me about it.

Denise Riley – Say Something Back

The sustained intensity of this book’s opening sequence, in elegy for Riley’s son, is unlike anything I’ve ever read; the emotional situation the reader is permitted to share in is often brutal. Riley spares herself very little, and in criticising the elegiac impulse, or what might appear to be a very natural grieving process, creates poems that cut deeply. Like MoE, it’s painful, it pulls no punches, it is generous beyond understanding. As above, read it and tell me about it.

Alice Oswald – Falling Awake

This is the first of Oswald’s collections I’ve really sat down with, and more fool me for leaving it so long. Falling Awake is the best nature poetry I’ve read in years, capturing a heartfelt love of the living world without quite romanticising it, keeping a healthy realism about the effect of an observing consciousness on what’s being observed. The book also has an attitude to time and mortality, the long distance and the big picture, that I find deeply heartening, if only for a moment or two. Falling Awake’s near-complete non-engagement with contemporary poetic trends is also very calming, if only, again, for a moment or two.

Melissa Lee-Houghton – Sunshine

I first read Sunshine in one sitting, in Glasgow, on a rainy day trip where I had too much caffeine and felt basically inconsolable for days after. I’m not well-versed on confessional poetry (if that’s the best way of thinking about Sunshine, and I’m not convinced it is), so I feel a bit underqualified to talk about it, not least in experiential terms. What’s clear is that the concentrated urgency of the work is damn near unrivalled, there’s zero fluff, cover to cover. I know several readers who find Lee-Houghton’s work deeply empowering in its clear-eyed discussion of mental illness, the basic message that this is something that happens to humans, that it can be survived. I’d just as readily give fair warning that it’s emotionally taxing; while it absolutely needs to be read, it needs to be approached with respect. Hope to write something a bit more substantial in the near future, but for now this is an exceptional book, one that’ll be on my mind for a long time.

Kate Tempest – Let Them Eat Chaos

If poetry!facebook is anything to go by, many people have pretty firm opinions about Tempest. I’d bet that Let Them Eat Chaos is unlikely to radically change those stances. It is, partly, an explicit condemnation of the country’s dominant political narratives, but it’s worth noting that the poem has seven speaking parts (eight if you include the narrator), and the outspoken doomsayer is only one of them. Even if we presume this particular character to be closest to our readerly understanding of Tempest Prime (there are strong textual arguments for it, after all), they remain a fictional construct as much as the rest of the cast, and are probably best read in that light. The fact I’m pre-empting criticism here, mind, is probably indicative of what I assume the general response is/will be. But aiming the most common critiques at the book (preaching to choir/simplistic ideology/general ubiquity) would miss the trees for the wood. Let Them Eat Chaos is occasionally stunning, not least for the realisation that no other poet published by one of the big houses is saying these things so plainly. There are vital questions to be asked of poetry’s political efficacy, now more than ever, but suffice, for now, to say my year of reading would be much poorer without this book.

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Some Other Rad Books That Would Reward The Time You Spent With Them, With Briefer Notes Than Those Above, In The Order I Found Them On My Desk

Chloe Stopa-Hunt – White Hills

The pamphlet from clinic is weirdly beautiful, with its old-timey wallpaper design, and the lack of page numbers leaving the words on the page as the only focus. The poems are tiny, airy curiosities with disconcerting undercurrents. One of the purest lyric works I’ve read in ages, one that keeps unfolding and unfolding each time I pick it up.

Padraig Regan – Delicious

Speaking of lyric, Regan’s pamphlet from new press Lifeboat is a real cracker. The poems are warm, tactile, sharp-witted, with a handful of real masterpieces. It’s a book to get you through winter, a hopeful and beautifully crafted collection.

Choman Hardi – Considering the Women

Hardi’s book was rightly recognised by the Forward Prizes, a collection that is on occasion difficult to read. Her long sequence, ‘Anfal’, marking women survivors of genocide in Kurdistan, is a massively important contribution to poetry in these islands, and deserves attention.

Ocean Vuong – Night Sky With Exit Wounds

An urgent and beautiful book. Vuong is almost impossibly candid, and his poems ask to be read with the openness and vulnerability by which they are given. One to save for a time you can run the risk of getting a bit weepy.

Modern Poets One – If I’m Scared We Can’t Win

Sometimes a book comes along that reminds you how much you still have to learn. The generous selection of Anne Carson’s was weird and unsettling; Berry and Collins both have collections out in the coming year, and this book is a brilliant taster. On a side note, the series almost unfairly exploits my completionist tendencies.

If A Leaf Falls Press – Sam Riviere

Pick one and treat yourself, they’re beautiful objects, the poets are amazing, I’m delighted they exist. This year’s highlights Kathryn Maris’ 2008 and AK Blakemore’s pro ana. (NB I lost track of this for a while and missed a few.)

Tiphanie Yanique – Wife

A powerful collection and deserved prizewinner. Yanique’s poems are like sitting down with someone who knows exactly what she’s talking about and is keen to enlighten you. Wife is angry, brilliant and completely uncompromising.

Luke Kennard – Cain

Cain asks some rudimentary questions about how readers construct the poet of their imagination, pressing back against the reader’s presumption of intimacy. I found the anagram section technically dazzling but kinda tough going, though flashbacks to Infinite Jest might be colouring my opinion. A rare blend of emotional intelligence and formal critique.

The BreakBeat Poets: New American Poetry in the Age of Hip-Hop – eds. Kevin Coval, Quraysh Ali Lansana, and Nate Marshall

This anthology covers decades of a nation-wide poetry scene (if somewhat focused on the editors’ home of Chicago) and provides the necessary context and criticism for outsider readers. It’s been a long time since I read an anthology with such a density of exciting, challenging, and various work.

Currently and Emotion: Translations – ed. Sophie Collins

I’m still only partway through this, so can really only give honourable mention to a beautifully laid out and thus far fascinating anthology which, like BreakBeat, gives a generous welcome to the uninitiated.

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Hope this has been enlightening! There’s been a hell of a lot of great poetry published this year, so if I’ve missed something obvious I apologise. I also apologise for being less productive than I’d like this year; there’s been times when other work commitments have made writing here difficult, times when writing anything felt simultaneously superfluous and nowhere near enough. I intend to be on here far more often in 2017.

I hope you’re well, I hope you have good people around you. Thanks for reading.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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