A Review of Ocean Vuong's Night Sky with Exit Wounds — April 24, 2016
by Christopher Nelson
A few years ago I read a chapbook called Burnings at the University of Arizona Poetry Center by a young poet named Ocean Vuong. It was my introduction to his work, and I was taken in by the powerful and uncanny images and his treatment of loss, sexuality, and cultural identity. It is a rare book, one you could only read at a rare library like the Poetry Center or at a poetry connoisseur's house or a unique bookstore. Burnings is currently out of print, and it sells for $190–$477 on Amazon. Recently Ocean Vuong's first full-length collection, Night Sky with Exit Wounds, was published by Copper Canyon Press. Its first printing sold out in one week. Poets and publishers reading this will know that that is unheard of, especially for a first book. So what gives? Well, it is a great book, one that it is difficult to talk about without sounding hyperbolic. People will be praising it for a long time. I haven't been so moved by a first book since Richard Siken's Crush in 2005, and it became an anthem to a generation of young poets. I imagine that Vuong's Night Sky with Exit Wounds will similarly inspire, rally, and break a new path—of thinking, feeling, and writing—for all who encounter it.
Beginning with an epigraph by Bei Dao—"the landscape crossed out with a pen / reappears here"—Vuong explores how the horrors of war reach through time to embrace generations. Born in Saigon, Vuong came to the United States as a young child. He writes, "An American soldier fucked a Vietnamese farmgirl. Thus my mother exists. / Thus I exist. Thus no bombs = no family = no me." These lines are an example of one complexity Vuong wrestles in these poems: that he is an American and that the American government destroyed his family's homeland. The success of these political poems is due to Vuong imbuing them with such deeply personal consequences. A Vietnamese proverb says that "Nothing is better than rice with fish / Nothing is better than a mother with a child." The speaker in these poems—though I suspect there is little separation between speaker and poet here—reveres his mother, for all she has endured and for all she has given him. He writes, "From men, I learned to praise the thickness of walls. / From women, / I learned to praise." And while these poems emphasize the dark legacy of war, they are also—and most importantly—testament to how the best of our humanity (love, perseverance, family) can overcome it.
Night Sky with Exit Wounds is also a very erotic book, confessionally so, and by confessional I mean that the subjects are often taboo, or if spoken about would be done so with shame: fellating unknown men, masturbating until your arm is sore, and the eroticization of the father. In "Ode to Masturbation," he writes:
in the backseat
where no man
from too much
His images draw energy from the tension between the beautiful and the lurid; but there is no shame in the telling, and that is the necessary condition for the success of a confessional poem. The desire for—and of—the father and the absence of the father loom largely in these poems, as do the competing desires to live and die. Night Sky with Exit Wounds is bookended by two allusive poems, "Telemachus" and "Odysseus Redux," in which Voung frames the various dramas of the collection with the archetypal challenge of the son: how to love that which must ultimately be renounced? One of the book's most masterful moments is in "Daily Bread," where the poet writes father and son into being in a windowless $40 motel room outside of Fresno; the father in his poor English encourages the son to embrace him, but the intention of the request and the nature of the embrace are ambiguous: Is it filial or incestuous love? Vuong exhibits here a master's restraint by letting the ambiguity and its competing implications seed the reader's imagination however he or she chooses.
Vuong's formal range must be praised too. Nearly every poem in Night Sky with Exit Wounds employs a distinct form or formal strategy. From the prose poetry of the haibun to terse, unpunctuated stychic lines; from lyric couplets to a post-modernist footnote poem; from ekphrasis to notebook fragments; from mythical allusion to personal confession—in all of these Vuong is brilliant, and despite the formal variety, the collection is unified by the intensity and consistency of a voice that leads us into the dark, often deep into the dark, but it does so bearing a bright torch. He writes, "I didn't know the cost // of entering a song—was to lose / your way back." Lead on, Ocean. Lead on, for we have entered.