There are some books which sit on your shelves for ages and you know you'll love them, but don't get around to reading them for some reason. “Night Sky with Exit Wounds” by Ocean Vuong is one of these. First published in 2016, it feels like one of those break-out books of poetry that's been universally lauded. His poems have that arresting quality as they clearly come from the heart and contain an urgent desire to communicate. The book is comprised of three sections: the first mostly deals with family heritage/the Vietnam War; the second mostly concerns childhood/family life and the third explores adulthood and looking to the future. Together they form a portrait of a distinct personality and the creation of an independent voice while meditating on themes including the body, violence, sex and nationality. He draws upon references from Greek mythology and American iconography taking them into an entirely new context. It's a thrilling new perspective charged with so much energy and passion.
Vuong has such an interesting way of discussing our bodies. Several poems give jolting new views on how we inhabit our skin and exist in relation to each other. In the poem 'Immigrant Haibun' he muses that “Maybe the body is the only question an answer can't extinguish.” And in the poem 'Headfirst' he considers how “the body is a blade that sharpens by cutting”. Still later, in the achingly self-reflective poem 'Someday I'll Love Ocean Vuong' he states “The most beautiful part of your body is wherever your mother's shadow falls.” Together his poems form a creative new view in how to feel ourselves as a physical presence and conscious being – even when those around us don't acknowledge our perspective or value our bodies. The striking seven page poem ‘Ode to Masturbation’ is actually a heartfelt take on how we relate to our own sense of being: “a hand to this blood-warm body like a word being nailed to its meaning & lives”
Some poems are tinged with a sharply political edge. 'Aubade with Burning City' considers the human impact and violence of America's abrupt withdrawal from Saigon by pairing the sense of local panic/death with lyrics from Irving Berlin's 'White Christmas'. Others have a much more personal feel considering how non-white Americans are asked about their origins: “When they ask you where you're from, tell them your name was fleshed from the toothless mouth of a war-woman.” These poems highlight how America is not a harmonious melting pot and can't progress as a society without acknowledging and addressing the past.
One poem surprisingly inhabits the perspective of Jacqueline Kennedy. This is a decidedly queer point of view and other poems directly address violence against queer bodies such as 'Seventh Circle of Earth' which memorialises a gay couple burned in their own home where their voices only exist as a sequence of footnotes. Still another poem looks at gay on gay violence considering the case of Jeffrey Dahmer and obsessive/possessive love: “I want to leave no one behind. To keep & be kept. The way a field turns its secrets into peonies. The way light keeps its shadow by swallowing it.” Also, 'Trojan' looks at the battle gear of ancient warriors meditating on the expression of brute strength as a form of pageant beauty. It often feels like Vuong himself is like the piano player in his poem 'Queen Under The Hill' in which it's stated “I sit turning bones into sonatas.”
At times it can feel like the author is speaking in a voice so direct it's almost painful. This can be the case even when he's writing in the second person as in 'Because It's Summer' where he writes “a swarm of want you wear like a bridal veil but you don't deserve it: the boy & his loneliness the boy who finds you beautiful only because you're not a mirror because you don't have enough faces to abandon you've come this far to be no one”. Later on the poem ‘Notebook Fragments’ takes a very different style from the others recording observations like loose diary entries reflecting the author's changing state of mind. An earlier poem expresses a desire to lose oneself “You can get lost in every book but you'll never forget yourself the way god forgets his hands” but then the poem 'Thanksgiving 2006' feels like a declaration of independence “I am ready to be every animal you leave behind.”
Vuong's poems combine to form a view that's at once movingly personal and energized with a message that needs to be heard.