by Cassandra Watterson
Ocean Vuong is hot property. The young poet’s newest book, Night Sky With Exit Wounds, $16, Copper Canyon Press, is one of those volumes of poetry young hipsters at the coffee bar are likely to describe as an “instant classic” or “genius.” It did win the Whiting Award, after all, and is a mythic, ecstatic collection of poems about love, family, and the impact of history. Copper Canyon ordered a second printing of this book in April, when his readings at AWP, and trending sales during National Poetry Month colluded to raise Vuong’s temperature to hot, hot, hot.
Night Sky With Exit Wounds is fantastic. Big and grand and pretty. This isn’t precious poetry, or poetry that is concerned with capturing the epiphany of the suburbs. No, Vuong fuses sex, gender, myth, and family history into a brilliant, sad, and sometimes-lonely collection of poetry.
Part of the fun of Night Sky With Exit Wounds is Vuong’s use of classic mythology to subvert his own narratives. Telemachus, Eurydice, Odysseus, and the Trojan horse, among others, find new life in Vuong’s poems. And what’s so refreshing is that Vuong’s visions of these classic tropes are sensual and slippery. It’s not only the psycho-sexual internal drama of Telemachus going through his Oedipal urges, but also an expression of our strange bodies, how they are joyful, and also confounding. This motif, the backbone of Vuong’s book, infuses his familial mythic lyrics with an inviting lushness. We identify with the boy in these poems, one who carries the weight of his father as if his father was a king, a war hero, something bigger and brighter and more dangerous than a suburban father, can of beer at his side, mowing the lawn. The classical imagery echoes the shadows of the Viet Nam war that Vuong’s generation inherited.
Vuong, who is gay, and an immigrant, establishes his role as outsider from the beginning. The opening poem, “Threshold” finds a speaker who describes spying on his father through a keyhole, saying “In the body, where everything has a price,/I was a beggar.” The tension in “Threshold” and the use of modifiers “the man,” and “that morning,” give us a sense that the boy has a history of being a peeping tom of sorts, and has been drawn to such furtive behavior. The peeping becomes a moment of discovery. The boy’s caught by dear old dad who would “listen for my clutched breath/behind the door.” His father, like a gateway, his singing deep and strong enough to ‘“fill <him> to the core/like a skeleton,” suggests what a terrible power fatherhood is.
Vuong’s vision in Wounds shows us that because we were all children once, every act towards us from our parents, from the worst to the greatest, becomes the mythologized ways we experience love. This is not to say that Vuong is psychoanalysis in metaphor, but rather that his poems about family and particularly his father ripple outward, psychologically. It’s hard not to think of Vuong’s father as being some fearful presence, an image often coupled with an AK-47, or blood, or a bullet wound. The very language the poet uses is as loaded as Sylvia Plath’s Nazi imagery in “Daddy.” Whether it’s “here is your father inside/your lungs” in “Deto(nation)” or “the way I seal my father’s lips/with my own, “ or even fatherly love projected outward as “another man leaving/into my throat” in “Devotion.” Vuong sets the reader off down this sometimes elusive, and elegiac path from the get go.
One of the more powerful poems in the collection is “Aubade with Burning City,” which strips Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas” into lines that are cut between the narrative of the fall of Saigon. It captures the surrealism of that Christmas song playing as magnolia blossoms fall and also the way people fall, cut down as they try to flee. Vuong uses striking imagery, the surprising contrast of the music and the death, all without preaching. Like the best of the political poets, Vuong shows, and lets the images do all the telling.
Stylistically, Vuong shows off his chops, playing with lines, form, and even the absence of lines in the “Seventh Circle of Earth,” a poem composed entirely of footnotes. The narrative is placed at the bottom of the page, while the footnotes hang like ashes in the air. Though Vuong channels elegy, many of the poems, and many of the lines are ecstatic frenzied exhalations. Not only is there the Whitmanesque impulse for long breathy notes, there is also the Dickinsonian control and flute like trills.
Rimbaud’s mischievousness sneaks into Vuong’s narratives. Vuong’s lush syllable play is erotic, and many of his poems are sensually charged; his images are rooted in the body. Even when not sexual, the language is classically erotic, a fascination with the physical body, and its relation to the spirit. Vuong’s poems inhabit the body, our desires. Many of the poems rely on the old French tradition of likening sex and death, le petit mal, and also express that to be queer is to fight a war for what you love.
Poetry is part preening, part magic, a glamor of words and theatrics, and Vuong does not disappoint. Night Sky With Exit Wounds flies; its wings make broad shadows across the landscape.
American poetry is infused with young vibrant talent thanks to the writing workshops that have become ubiquitous across college campuses. Regardless of how one feels about writing boot camps, the capitalist higher education salon culture creates readers, audiences, consumers of its own interests. There’s nothing wrong with that, mind you, it shows that American poetry is in resurgence. Making a comeback. Of course it never really left. Vuong isn’t the only young bright star ascending, and if you are a fan of poetry, it’s a great time to be a reader.
Keep an eye out for Cassandra’s Review of Stephen Scott Whitaker’s All My Rowdy Friends, from small publisher PunksWritePoems!
Cassandra Watterson lives north of Philadelphia, and makes a living as a freelance writer and as a part-time teacher of English literature.
She was educated at Towson University and the University of Scranton.