“In the body, where everything has a price,
I was a beggar. On my knees,
I watched, through the keyhole, not
the man showering, but the rain
falling through him: guitar strings snapping
over his globed shoulders.” – Ocean Vuong, “Threshold”
When thinking about Night Sky with Exit Wounds (Copper Canyon Press, 2016) by Ocean Vuong, I am captured by the beginning moments of the book–begging from within, wanting more than what was given or offered. And then, that wanting peeking through a limited access, watching a man being loved by nature. But, in these few lines, we fall in love with the lyrical imagery Vuong paints us. Well, it is this act of labor we have come to love from Vuong. The way he scripts a scene reminds us of the endless opportunities language often hides from us. Especially the English language.
Night Sky with Exit Wounds is patiently abusive. There’s a desire for understanding one’s body while watching other bodies linger and love. The voice in these poems are obsessive in this desire–reaching not only for oneself, but for the self seen by family and history. It’s more than an account of experiences, but a cracking open of Vuong’s bare chest–saying look here. Look where I begin. How I see myself searching for an end.
However, the book revels in its own accounts of history. While it speaks of the body and its turmoil, it enters an atmosphere where the familial histories seep into these stories. For example, in the poem,” A Little Closer to the Edge,” (one of my favorite poems, by the way), the speaker is telling a story of the night he was conceived. With lines like, “O father, O foreshadow, press / into her–as the field shreds itself / with cricket cries,” and “let every river envy / our mouths. Let every kiss hit the body / like a season,” Vuong is being completely vulnerable–in not only his own experiences, but in the experiences of others. We are forced to be intimate beyond the constraints of the book itself.
In the second section, Vuong introduces us to the intersection of Vietnam and his family’s history. As we journey form poem to poem, we begin understanding the making of histories and how we are to measure our own in comparison to our cultural surroundings. In the poem, “Aubade with Burning City,” we see an overlapping of two otherwise contrasting experiences–the evacuation of American civilians and Vietnamese refugees during the fall of Saigon; all the while, telling the story of a man trying to persuade a woman to have sex with him. Here, we see the beauty of two bodies wanting to enter intimacy, while bodies are attempting to escape danger. The poem becomes the true meaning of love and war. Vuong is showing us how he wishes to entrust the body to the acts of love while destruction is literally tearing at the window; “The city so white it is ready for ink”; as if to say this is the time to rewrite your own history. It is sacrifice we are reading in this poem. Giving up the fear of destruction, of harm, for the immediate response to love. And then the pressure to turn your back on this fear or an otherwise erasure of history–“Don’t worry, he says, as the first shell flashes / their faces, my brothers have won the war / and tomorrow … / The lights go out.”
Aubade with Burning City
South Vietnam, April 29, 1975: Armed Forces Radio played Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas” as a code to begin Operation Frequent Wind, the ultimate evacuation of American civilians and Vietnamese refugees by helicopter during the fall of Saigon.
Milkflower petals on the street
like pieces of a girl’s dress.
May your days be merry and bright …
He fills a teacup with champagne, brings it to her lips.
Open, he says.
Outside, a soldier spits out
his cigarette as footsteps
fill the square like stones fallen from the sky. May all
your Christmases be white as the traffic guard
unstraps his holster.
His hand running the hem
of her white dress.
His black eyes.
Her black hair.
A single candle.
Their shadows: two wicks.
A military truck speeds through the intersection, the sound of children
shrieking inside. A bicycle hurled
through a store window. When the dust rises, a black dog
lies in the road, panting. Its hind legs
crushed into the shine
of a white Christmas.
On the nightstand, a sprig of magnolia expands like a secret heard
for the first time.
The treetops glisten and children listen, the chief of police
facedown in a pool of Coca-Cola.
A palm-sized photo of his father soaking
beside his left ear.
The song moving through the city like a widow.
A white … A white … I’m dreaming of a curtain of snow
falling from her shoulders.
Snow crackling against the window. Snow shredded
with gunfire. Red sky.
Snow on the tanks rolling over the city walls.
A helicopter lifting the living just out of reach.
The city so white it is ready for ink.
The radio saying run run run.
Milkflower petals on a black dog
like pieces of a girl’s dress.
May your days be merry and bright. She is saying
something neither of them can hear. The hotel rocks
beneath them. The bed a field of ice
Don’t worry, he says, as the first bomb brightens
their faces, my brothers have won the war
and tomorrow …
The lights go out.
I’m dreaming. I’m dreaming …
to hear sleigh bells in the snow …
In the square below: a nun, on fire,
runs silently toward her god —
Open, he says.
& this is how we danced: our mothers’
white dresses spilling from our feet, late August
turning our hands dark red. & this is how we loved:
a fifth of vodka & an afternoon in the attic, your fingers
through my hair–my hair a wildfire. We covered
our ears & your father’s tantrum turned
to heartbeats. When our lips touched the day closed
into a coffin. In the museum of the heart
there are two headless people building a burning house.
There was always the shotgun above
the fireplace. Always another hour to kill–only to beg
some god to give it back. If not the attic, the car. If not
the car, the dream. If not the boy, his clothes. If not alive,
put down the phone. Because the year is a distance
we’ve traveled in circles. Which is to say: this is how
we danced: alone in sleeping bodies. Which is to say:
this is how we loved: a knife on the tongue turning
into a tongue.
By using words like, “wildfire,” “coffin,” “kill,” and “beg,” the underlying contrast between suffering and yearning rears its ugly smile. The speaker is “dancing” with this other (or others), wishing the dance will never stop. However, he knows that this is only a temporary moment–unrealistic to his life outside the moment. The term, “homewrecker,” falls into many categories. “Home” being the wrecked body. “Home” being the broken heart and shattered fantasy. “Home” being another’s relationship. And it is this ambiguity that makes the final lines more realistic for the reader: “Which is to say: / this is how we loved: a knife on the tongue turning / into a tongue.” What does it mean for a knife to turn into a tongue while cutting into a tongue? The image literally makes no sense. But, to think of the knife as something made to cut into something is a beaut in itself. No? This knife; one, inside the mouth, something intimate to oneself–again a contrast between suffering and yearning–then, not only splitting the thing that allows us to properly project language, but becomes the thing itself–made into an object of necessity.
Moreover, this transformation of weapon into necessity brings to this idea of language and language is both weaponized but is essential in society. In the final section we are gifted with just that–the ebb and flow of language. In poems like, “Notebook Fragments,” we are granted entry in the speaker’s inner thoughts through fragmented pieces of note taking. Here, we are only given pieces of stories, yet, as the reader, we are left wondering about these stories and how they relate to the speaker. But, the speaker, in all they generosity, only allows us what is written down. Fragmented, here, does not only mean broken, but it means pieces of. While each instance is relayed to us in a complete sentence, the language we are missing is the overall happening of the event. Whereas, in the poem, “Ode to Masturbation,” all forms of punctuation has been removed. In addition, lines have been broken into one to three words; “because you / were never / holy / only beautiful / enough / to be found”; the lack of punctuation adds to the stillness and patience the book portrays. And yet, as the speaker announces themselves as never being “holy,” we are immediately on the defensive. The poem becomes completely drowned in a moment of discomfort and vulnerability. The poem announces their body as something sinful, or in the process of wanting purity. It’s dirty, to say the least. Again, in this poem, language is broken. The poem starts with the word, “because,” we alludes to both a response and a further breaking of “traditional” language.
In the poem, “Logophobia,” (which is defined as a fear of words), the speaker is necessarily proclaiming their fear of words, but is giving us the instance where they are defeating this fear.
Afterword, I woke
into the dark
on this yellow pad.
Looking through the letters
I can see
into the earth
below, the blue blur
I drill the ink
into a period.
The deepest hole,
where the bullet,
my father’s back,
the way words
of this whole
The speaker, here, is having a writer’s block and is trying to address their family on the page. However, the history of their people is getting in the way of this; “Looking through the letters / I can see / into the earth / below, the blue blur / of bones.” And these histories are histories of death. Furthermore, it is these same histories that they are desiring to put at ease, or their thinking of these histories at ease, through the written language. The poem itself becomes a tranquil space for the speaker in wanting to find the language to address a history in which has, time and time again, offered itself as destruction. While the poem seems to follow traditional punctuation, it ends without a period. It is open ended, as if to say the journey to find this language–a language of history, suffering, and a desire to understand one’s body in relation to all of these things–is never-ending.
And truly, Vuong, it is.
You can purchase Night Sky with Exit Wounds here.