Words weaved with stars, mythol­ogy and his­tory

Jamaica Gleaner - - ARTS & EDUCATION - Ann-Mar­garet Lim Gleaner Writer

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.

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 17, 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.

Cover of ‘Night Sky with Exit Wounds’.

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