Words weaved with stars, mythology and history
Night Sky With Exit Wounds, Ocean Vuong's debut poetry collection goes for the big. A number of weighty themes, from 'taboo' love, whether between individuals of warring countries or the same sex; loss that comes from life-altering situations such as family separations, forced migration, death and abandonment are beautifully woven into the anthology of 34 poems, 35 if you count 'Threshold', which acts as a foreword.
Vuong, who has two previous chapbooks, No and Burning, hit the awards jackpot with Night Sky With Exit Wounds, which received the Whiting Award, the T.S. Elliott Poetry Prize, the Foreward Prize (first poetry collection category), the Thom Gunn Award, and serious critical acclaim.
At once telling the autobiographical story of a family forged from the Vietnam War, and separated because of it, and also a wider story of exile, otherness and tragedy, Night Sky With Exit Wounds has universal appeal as it resonates with those on similar journeys depicted in the book.
Utilising universal references, and painfully memorable moments in history, for example, Vuong captures the reader's full attention as he weaves a story of life in exile, with his own family's refugee camp experience as immediate material, and life in general, as an outsider, whether as a migrant in the great US, or a member of the LGBT community.
With the weighty themes comes a light and skilled pen, thus an excellent book of poems.
The grandchild of a Vietnamese farm girl and an American soldier is able to draw from family and wider history to write the potent lines below taken from 'Headfirst'.
Don't you know?
A mother's love
neglects pride the way fire
neglects the cries
of what it burns.
My son, even tomorrow
you will have today. Don't you know?
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.
One of the dominant themes in Vuong's book is that of the loss experienced when a parent is absent.
In this case it is a missing father.
The author, whose own father disappeared during the time Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) was seized and the family placed in refugee status, doesn't only write on this theme from the immediate. He draws from a universally shared mythology to assist in his truth telling.
The Greek reference to Telemachus, who goes in search of his father, Odyssesus, in the poem of the same name, is a prime example.
Vuong's work, permeated by his absent father, brings to mind Sylvia Plath, whose work is haunted by her father who died when she was 10.
Both - skilled poets - create sharp, memorable images from these absences. The Plath comparison seems unavoidable also, as both, with a tendency to the autobiographical, can be considered confessional poets.
In 'To My Father/To My Future Son', which is introduced by an Emily Dickinson line "the stars are not hereditary", we see Vuong bringing the absent father, the future son, recurring fire, and burning images, together in a poem that seems to encapsulate the things he would want to share with his son. The poem also brings together the images and symbols of rain, fire and burning, that figure largely in Vuong's writing.
Below is an excerpt from 'To My Father/To My Future Son'.
Turn back & find the book I left for us,
filled with all the colours of the sky
forgotten by gravediggers.
Use it to prove how the stars
were always what we knew
they were: the exit wounds
of every misfired word.
The recurring symbols and images of rain, fire, and burning throughout the collection sometimes figure in consecutive poems.
'Aubade with Burning City', which has as one of its final images a nun on fire running to her god, develops the burning image that 'Trojan', the preceding poem, introduces.
There are other places that this baton exchange occurs in the book, allowing the poems to speak with each other as they speak to the reader.
Here's an excerpt from 'Trojan'.
... How a horse will run until it breaks
into weather - into wind.
How like the wind,
they will see him.
They will see him clearest
when the city burns.
In 'Seventh Circle of Earth', where a gay couple is killed by immolation, or bottle torch, the burning image and fire recur.
This poem, though, is written as endnotes, that is, the space where stanzas should be is blank, except for the numbers 1-7, with the poem found, instead, in the endnote section.
The endnote poem is indeed an example of Vuong's otherness and comfort in living way outside the box or reshaping it. It is highly suspected that it is this willingness to experiment and create the 'new', while still dialoguing with history and the before, that makes him a darling of the critics and the awards machinery.
The poet's talented pen is also brilliantly tactical as it writes a sensitive spot in American history into poem when he successfully pens 'Of Thee I Sing', - capturing a painfully important part of America's history - the assassination of JFK.
Written in the voice of JFK's widow, Jackie, in the moment immediately following the assassination and thus before she becomes Jackie O, the poem's first lines - 'We made it baby./We're riding in the back of the black/limousine. They have lined/the road to shout our names./They have faith in your golden hair and pressed grey suit -', definitely bring us to the American dream and show us how the dream could go tragically wrong.
There are many other shining moments in Vuong's debut collection Notebook Fragments, which reads like a 'quilt poem' of moments and facts that on the surface, and for the most part, are unrelated but share the thread of beautiful and powerful imagery that illicit responses and are somewhat stitched together, with the last seven lines, is one such example.
Below are excerpts from Notebook Fragments.
Spilled orange juice all over the table this morning. Sudden sunlight
I couldn't wipe away.
... Woke at 1 a.m.
and, for no reason,
ran through Duffy's cornfield. Boxers only.
Corn was dry.
I sounded like a fire,
for no reason.
Grandma said in the war they would grab a baby, a soldier at each ankle and pull ...
Just like that.
... There are over 13,000 unidentified body parts from the World Trade Center
Being stored in an underground repository in New York City.
Good or bad?
... Maybe the rain is 'sweet' because it falls
through so much of the world.
... Woke up screaming with no sound.
The room filling with a bluish water called dawn.
Went to kiss grandma on the forehead
just in case.
Some grenades explode with a vision of white flowers.
... When the prison guards burned his manuscripts, Nguyen Chi Thien couldn't stop laughing - the 283 poems already inside him.
Acclaimed Jamaican poet Wayne Brown once described poetry and the writing process as a more spiritual exercise, with the atmosphere among poets being a more reverential one compared to the more 'heathenistic' atmosphere of fiction writers.
This is definitely seen in Vuong's collection as many poems here, including 'Threshold', 'Aubade with Burning City' and 'Daily Bread', leave you in silent wonder and awe upon reading.
Title: Night Sky With Exit Wounds
Publishers: Copper Canyon