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 the narrow walls of a nail salon, where he taught his family English.
In an 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. The 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.
Tell me it was for the hunger
& nothing less. For hunger is to give
the body what it knows
it cannot keep. That this amber light
whittled down by another war
is all that pins my hand
to your chest.
between my arms—
You, pushing your body
into the river
only to be left with yourself—
from “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous”
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 slid the shoe box, wrapped
in duct tape, beneath my bed. His thumb,
still damp from the shudder between mother’s
thighs, kept circling the mole above my brow.
The devil’s eye blazed between his teeth.
or was he lighting a joint? It didn’t matter. Tonight
I wake & mistake the bathwater wrung
from my mother’s hair for his voice. I open
the 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. […]
from “Always & Forever”
A gun. To use on others? On oneself? Vuong doesn’t say. The poem concludes: “…the barrel, aimed at the sky, must tighten / around a 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 savior 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 white sand, his knuckles carving a trail
the waves rush in to erase. Because the city
beyong the shore is no longer
where 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 that Vuong throws his expansive love and hope and lives up to his name, Ocean: a grand body of water that connects.
There was a door & then a door
surrounded by a forest.
Look, my eyes are not
You move through me like rain heard
from another country.
Turn back & find the book
I left for us, filled
with all the colors of the sky
forgotten by gravediggers.
Use it. Use it to prove how the stars
were always what we believed
they were: the exit wounds
from “To my Father/To My Future Son”
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 echoes a need to claim herself. Or Robert Lowell’s and Dani Shapiro’s close studies of inheritance and identity, the former in poetry, the later in memoir.