Poetry Review: Night Sky with Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong

night sky with exit wounds by ocean vuong

The song moving through the city like a widow.

– From “Aubade with Burning City” (pg. 11)

Ocean Vuong’s book Night Sky with Exit Wounds (Copper Canyon Press, 2016) has been on my mind evening upon evening for nearly a week. I have struggled to process what such a staggered image landscape of intimacy, trauma, and phantasmagoria means, as a general reader, but also as a believer in the intimate, a survivor of the traumatic, and a walker of the dream world. Ultimately, Vuong’s book rings of humanistic bells resounding amidst a world composed of the meeting between the frail collective and the haunted individual. It is a practiced place but one muddled with atrocity and certainty. The stories making up this book of 89 pages are Vuong’s own, but they carry the weight and depth to make them memorable to all, despite how confusing and powerfully so they find themselves when matched together in book form.

You will always remember what you were doing
when it hurts the most. There is so much
I need to tell you—but I only earned
one life. & I took nothing. Nothing. Like a pair of teeth
at the end.

– From “Untitled (Blue, Green, and Brown): oil on canvas: Mark Rothko: 1952” (page 49)

Composed of three major sections, lacking titles but not faces, Night Sky covers massive ground yet leaves clear divisions in ideas, themes, leaving focuses of ideas up in the air, but still visible. The world constructed is a world Vuong represents through clear dance (or conversation) between a past riddled with bullets and departures and a present fueled with mindful engagement, where the right questions must be asked at the right times, as the right also are asked at the wrong. Such a structure to the book causes me to naturally pace myself as a reader in ways most books regularly fail to. At times comforted by the rhythm of Vuong’s writing, and at times confronted and overwhelmed by the ideas within, my reading style is both recognized and antagonized by arrays of poetic brilliance. Vuong as an individual is crafty and aesthetically of his own elevated caliber. Vuong as a writer of the English language sucks the readers in like a vortex, where we are placed, held, memorized in awe and empathy. Perhaps, thus, one of my favorite qualities of Vuong’s writing is its ability to shape the perception of time and space on his own terms, while inviting us to know his rules.

His knees sunk / in ink-black mud, he guides / a ribbon of water to the pulsing / blowhole. Ok. Okay. AK / -47. I am eleven only once / as he kneels to gather the wet refugee / into his arms.”

– From “In Newport I Watch My Father Lay His Cheek to a Beached Dolphin’s Wet Back” (page 23)

Speakers include Vuong as poet, Vuong as lover, Vuong as survivor. Speakers include his mother. His father. Speakers include the darkly-lit omniscience over war-torn Vietnam and traffic-packed New York. A kaleidoscopic sense of diversity, from the biographical characters to the range of lenses of the artist, allow Vuong the capability to fluidly shift perspective, tone, and imagery. A navigation like a watercraft in a storm, leaving ample room for spontaneity and crisis, where aversion is secondary. Embracing a landscape of chaos describes one of many of Vuong’s places and positions in 21st century poetry. A poetry that ruptures and settles before rupturing again may appeal to the fragmentation of thought and the need for reliability in our 2016 world.

. . . Listen,
the year is gone. I know
nothing of my country. I write things
down. I build a life & tear it apart
& the sun keeps shining. Crescent
wave. Salt-spray. Tsunami. I have
enough ink to give you the sea
but not the ships, but it’s my book
& I’ll say anything just to stay inside
this skin.

– From “Daily Bread” (page 76)

When the concepts of the immigrant, of the refugee, of who that is in transition, of who that is surviving are in the spotlight, there is the potential for some reconciliation for all. Those with disassociation from such terms are brought into a space where reconciling a human spirit is very possible, and these spaces are very valuable. A conduit, gateway, portal, or platform, Night Sky is Vuong’s gift for those of us who identify with his story and those of us who do not. Vuong opens us to his world and, like the most effective poetry, the embodiment of honesty and aesthetic, the effects are multiple at their core. The experiences of moments, the effects of encounters of emotion, the choruses of the world as a feedback for our own buried and unearthed cultural, familial, geographical lineages: the devices and functionalities within this book are countless. Despite his youth and yet owing to his youth, Vuong’s engagement of an epic reality enhanced by an asserted imagination brings forth a super-real existence all readers can gain from. Impacting sleep, fulfilling daily life, and instilling a sense of the heightened in a world where we can push away and pull forward makes Night Sky an essential tome of love and the humane for our evolution as separate people and as members of the whole.

Instead, let it be the echo to every footstep
drowned out by rain, cripple the air like a name

flung onto a sinking boat, splash the kapok’s bark
through rot & iron of a city trying to forget

– From “Self-Portrait as Exit Wounds” (page 26)

You can read more about Night Sky with Exit Wounds and/or acquire a copy here.

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