By Jessica Liu
“Here’s the house with childhood / whittled down to a single red trip wire,” the speaker declares in “Someday I’ll Love Ocean Vuong,” part of Ocean Vuong’s 2016 poetry collection "Night Sky with Exit Wounds." Indeed, the collection pares down a medley of emotions and past experiences into haunting poetry that lingers in the middle of intersections between past and present, masculinity and femininity, Vietnam and America. Vuong, a gay, Vietnamese-American man, is no stranger to these dichotomies himself. His heritage and identity seep into his poetry, offering unique vulnerability to his words.
The collection begins a discussion of the rippling impacts of familial bonds with the poem “Threshold,” in which the speaker watches his father sing in the shower. The father drifts beyond the speaker’s reach like an apparition, "the rain / falling through him" as if he were only a shadow. Similar visions of the narrator’s often-absent father linger across multiple poems as a testament to the lasting influence of one’s roots and upbringing. At one point, the narrator wishes “the day will close without / the page turning as [his father] wraps his arms around / the boy’s milk-blue shoulders”; this sense of longing permeates the book.
The effects of family and heritage also surface in commentary on the Vietnam War, which Vuong’s family experienced. The words of “White Christmas,” played during the fall of Saigon in 1975 as an evacuation signal, weave throughout the poem “Aubade with Burning City” as a backdrop to the gunfire and soldiers’ footsteps that “fill the square like stones / fallen from the sky.” Despite the war’s violence, Vuong admits that “no bombs = no family = no me,” a reference to how, without the war, his American grandfather, stationed in Vietnam as part of the U.S. Navy, never would have met his Vietnamese grandmother. Similar succinct moments exemplify his confessional writing style and ability to tether history to the present.
In his poems, Vuong also draws from his family’s experience with immigration and the cultural divides stemming from his origins. “Immigrant Haibun” unfolds as the narrator and his family travel across the ocean, escaping the war-torn city they once lived in; above them, stars symbolize the promise of safety like “little centuries opening just long enough for us to slip through.” This experience serves as a reminder of the perilous journeys many refugees and immigrants have endured throughout history. Later, in “Notebook Fragments,” the narrator expresses confusion caused by his Vietnamese roots: “In Vietnamese, the word for grenade is ‘bom,’ from the French ‘pomme,’ / meaning ‘apple.’ / Or was it American for ‘bomb?’” “The Gift” elaborates on this turmoil; while the speaker’s mother teaches him to write the only three letters of English she knows, “the pencil snaps. / The b bursting its belly / as dark dust blows / through a blue-lined sky,” the allusion to bombs and plosive alliteration compounding the hardships of war and immigration that impact the speaker’s family.
Queer desire and the exploration of bodies are described with similarly visceral imagery. In “Because It’s Summer,” the speaker lies about going out with a woman, really venturing out to meet a male stranger. Vuong’s precise depiction of the baseball field “flecked with newports” and the stranger’s “sticky palms & mint / on his breath a cheap haircut” offer raw honesty to the furtive encounter. There’s also a profound sense of self-awareness: the speaker describes his lover as “the boy & / his loneliness the boy who finds you / beautiful only because you’re not / a mirror.” This desperation for connection is similar to the feelings of those often seen as outsiders, including queer people and people of color.
"Night Sky With Exit Wounds" exemplifies the art of packing fleeting, immense emotion into sparse words. Imagery, as acute as “a razor / sharpened with silence,” infuses Vuong’s work with tangible urgency. He employs both subtle and jarring devices, from experimental forms utilizing line breaks and enjambment to poems constructed around quotes from those such as the serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer.
Vuong’s purposeful diction lends the collection versatility and boldness fitting for its expansive themes of loss, longing, and heritage. Skillfully, he bridges the past and present, exploring how history and relationships yield rippling effects throughout our lives. Additionally, through depicting his own hardships, he allows readers to process their own suffering.
Perhaps what has lingered with me the most after reading the collection is Vuong’s ability to touch on topics like immigration, war, and love with brutal honesty, roping readers into the realities of the burdens many people of color carry, whether from intersecting identities, family histories, or discrimination. However, even with his coverage of immeasurable hardship, we are left with a message of resilience: “The most beautiful part of your body is where it’s headed,” Vuong assures, a promise of light for those grappling with adversity.