From the deep and disquieted mind of Vietnamese-born poet, Ocean Vuong (b. 1988) comes a volume of transfiguration, mourning and identity, Night Sky with Exit Wounds.
In three decades Vuong was swept from a rice farm in Vietnam, to a Philippine refugee camp, to a Connecticut family home to within narrow walls of a nail salon where he taught his family English.
In effort to find a semblance of life and continuity of himself, Vuong turns these places – each one unlike the previous – into abstract spaces: thresholds, a breach, underland, oceans and, most of all, sky.1
The sky is a limitless expanse that holds memory yet means something different to each viewer. Sky is a space into which Vuong can expand, exist. “How I wanted to be that sky,” Vuong writes “To hold every flight and fall at once.”
Vuong pours himself into his verse, not self-celebrating per se, but self-identifying. I am this. I am here.
“On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous”
Tell me it was for the hunger& nothing less. For hunger is to givethe body what it knows
it cannot keep. That this amber lightwhittled down by another waris all that pins my hand to your chest.
you, drowningbetween my armsstay
You, pushing your body into the riveronly to be left with yourself-
There is a taught line between love and pain, freedom and death, one’s self and another. A main component in this collection is the father/son relationship. A father broken, lost, whose legacy to his son is simultaneously direct and amorphous.
Vuong’s poem “Always & Forever” is pressing commentary about things our parents bequeath us.
Open this when you need me most,he said, as he slide this shoe box, wrapped
in duct tape, beneath my bed. His thumb, still damp from the shudder between mother’s
thighs, kept circling the mole about my browThe devil’s eye blazed between his teeth.
or was he lighting a joint? It didn’t matter. TonightI wake & mistake the bathwater wrung
from my mother’s hair for his voice. I openthe shoe box dusted with seven winters
& here, sunk in folds of yellowed news-paper, lies the Colt. 45 – silent and heavy
as an amputated hand. I hold the gun& wonder if an entry wound in the night
would make a hole as wide as morning. […]
A gun. To use on others? On oneself? Vuong doesn’t say, the poem concludes “…the barrel, aimed at the sky, must tighten / around bullet/to make it speak.” It is the sky that holds and heals the exit wounds.
In “Telemachus,” a poem named after the son of Odysseus who mourned his long-lost father, Vuong acts as a savoir to his father, a witness bearing testimony to his existence.
Like any good son, I pull my father out
of the water, drag him by his hair
through the white sand, his knuckles carving a trail
the waves rush in to erase. Because the city
beyong the shore is no longerwhere we left it. Because the bombed
cathedral is now a cathedral
of trees. I kneel beside him to see how far
I might sink. Do you know who I am,
Ba? But the answer never comes.
Vuong’s collection is a search for identity and individuality. A lone voice lost in the noise of inter-generational families whose lines cross oceans.
Within this long, easily disconnected line of familiar continuity exists Vuong, and yet, he remains apart. The first of his family to have a college education, the first to come of age in America, and the first who is openly gay.
It is also to this continuum which Vuong throws his expansive love and hope and lives up to his name Ocean: a grand body of water that connects.
“To my Father/To My Future Son”
There was a door & then a doorsurrounded by a forest.
Look, my eyes are not your eyes.
You move through me like rain heard from another country
Turn back & find the book I left for us, filledwith all the colors of the sky forgotten by gravediggers. Use it.
Use it to prove how the stars were always what we knew
they were the exit wound of every misfired word.
The words Vuong fires demonstrate patience, education, love and through his poetry, witness. These are the gifts Vuong returns, to his family and to humanity at large.
Read Night Sky With Exit Wounds alongside the essays of Durga Chew-Bose, a first generation Canadian author who echoed a need to claim herself. Or Robert Lowell and Dani Shapiro’s close studies of inheritance and identity, the former in poetry, the later in memoir.