Night Sky With Exit Wounds, Ocean Vuong’s debut collection, has just (January, 2018) won the T.S. Eliot Prize – a major in the world of poetry. But who is Ocean Vuong? And why has the collection won over so many, from critics right through to those brand new to poetry?
Let’s start with the name. Vinh Quoc became Ocean as a means of disassociation from the now-absent father who chose the name. After fleeing a war-torn Vietnam and living in a refugee camp, the family landed in America ready to start a new life, only for the father to break away from the family. Vuong’s mother, in response, changed Vinh Quoc to Ocean, symbolizing both the broken relationship and the duality of her son, neither American nor Vietnamese but ‘a body of water connected to and separate from each shore’.
Vuong’s debut collection, Night Sky with Exit Wounds, is equally an ocean. At times still, at others violent, the collection laps the beaches of Vietnam and America; its tides roll through questions of language, sexuality, identity, and history. In his poem ‘Daily Bread’, Vuong describes his writing as ‘Crescent wave. Salt spray. Tsunami’. He states he has ‘enough ink to give you the sea, but not the ships’. The inference is that the poet has many depths; that he is trying to work these out; that he can show why he is Ocean but not why he struggles to stay calm. Night Sky with Exit Wounds is an attempt to answer that very question.
‘Threshold’, the opening poem, described in Vuong’s reading at the Fashion Institute of Technology as his ‘raison d’être’, is an exploration of the poet’s approach to writing – a ‘personal Ars Poetica’.
“For in the body, where everything has a price / I was alive.”
Vuong uses the poem to show us what to expect from Night Sky and from the poet. The first-person narrative suggests a truth and the descriptions of ‘watching through keyholes’ and ‘entering a song’ show physicality, the lyrical, and snatched moments, are key to his writing process. In an interview with The Creative Independent, Vuong explains this in greater detail:
“What does it say about the speaker who looks up at the sky and sees ruptures? There’s an autobiography in the gaze.”
Night Sky questions themes of fatherhood, masculinity, and sexuality by presenting their conflicting traits. In ‘In Newport I Watch my Father Lay His Cheek to a Beached Dolphin’s Back’, the actions of the speaker’s father are used to portray contradictions; the jump from sympathy for a stranded dolphin to having a ‘hammer in his fist, mother / a nail-length out of reach’. The ‘autobiography in the gaze’ being the speaker’s confusion about the father; a man who, in ‘On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous’, is described as ‘backhanding mother, then taking a chainsaw to the kitchen table’ before vacating to the bathroom to weep. It is a testament to Vuong that he can portray confusion with clarity, describe in detail that which by its nature is blurred.
This back and forth continues with language used to unsettle the reader and/or introduce violence. In ‘Aubade with Burning City’ Vuong describes ‘Milkflower petals in the street / like pieces of a girl’s dress’. The shift from a soft, romantic line to the violence of a ripped dress causes shock. We aren’t sure where the poet is taking us. The line is then repeated further in, altered to ‘Milkflower petals on a black dog, like pieces of a girl’s dress’. Vuong presents the reader with what they already know but adds a twist.
In the same poem, a man pouring champagne tells a woman to ‘open’ and ‘she opens’. Later, a nun is set on fire and her death is described as a God calling her to ‘open’, for whom ‘she opens’. Foreshadowed lines and their changes add cohesion to Vuong’s poems but also help to push them in new directions. A line at one point can describe celebration, at another, trauma. This is evident not only in singular poems but throughout the collection, helping the interplay between single pieces and the work as a whole; for example, the repetition of ‘entry wounds’ and ‘exit wounds’; of people drowning; of cigarette smoke.
In his review for Lambda Literary, Christopher Soto identifies a group of words that repeat throughout: father; mother; fire; teeth; dreaming; scream. In my own reading, I noticed others: flame, hair, smoke, grenade. I agree with Soto in that this repetition could feel like a ‘poetic tic’ in less able hands, but with Vuong, ‘every instance where the word is repeated…gains new meaning’.
The technique of redefining meaning is apparent in the genesis of ideas as well as the language used to achieve them. Vuong uses existing material – mythology, art, history – as a microscope (or more precisely, a kaleidoscope) for his own experience. His poems reference Rothko paintings, Homer, the evacuation of Saigon, the Japanese poet Basho. With titles and epigraphs as references, readers are given hints as to what direction the poems will take. Art and history do play a role within the collection, but it is mythology that is most frequent. In her review for The Guardian, Claire Armitstead quotes Vuong on this obsession and how it interplays with reality:
“’Western mythology is so charged with the father,’ he says. ‘Personally, I’m always asking who’s my father. Like Homer, I felt I’d better make it up. The Japanese have a word for it: yugen, when you have so little you have to imagine it.’”
This imagination, or rather, this straying from the factual, is equally evident in the choices on language. Doubt creeps into Vuong’s poems from their very beginnings, opting for ambiguities such as ‘Instead’ and ‘Suppose’. The tendency to avoid complete answers is evident throughout. In ‘Notebook Fragments’ it reaches a crescendo. With no outright theme, the poem is an amalgamation of separate, brief stanzas that jump between history, sexuality, identity, masculinity, fatherhood, and language, similar to the collection as a whole. Vuong makes ‘Notebook Fragments’ coherent by placing it in the final section of the book. By this point, the themes have already been examined and readers have the knowledge to untangle the complexities. Vuong supplies us with the jigsaw pieces before asking us to solve the puzzle.
Having faith in readers is important, especially in poetry, and Vuong is never shy to challenge. This confidence towards the reader is also evident with Vuong’s choices on form. The poet jumps between couplets, free form, and more prosaic styles, such as the Japanese Haibun with ease. The forms predominantly add an extra dimension to the content, for example the Haibun describing a refugee’s journey from Vietnam to America. Occasionally, the choices seem strange. The use of footnotes for the body of the poem ‘Seventh Circle Of Earth’ for example, but it could be argued that the decision to break convention is laudable. And what would any collection be without exploration and risk, especially a debut?
The non-conformity of the work has its strengths. It lends each poem an honesty by not forcing them into too neat a box or category, meaning readers can find something new at every visit. For those looking to write poetry, there are lessons to be taken from the bravery. There are also lessons in the use of repetition and then the twist; in the variety of form; in the freedom with using existing material to analyse the self; and, more common with other poets – especially those also published under Johnathon Cape (Andrew McMillan, Neil Rollinson, Sharon Olds etc) – in the use of the body to ground emotion and exploration of the psyche.
Vuong’s debut is brave and takes risks, never forcing its poems into too conclusive a finale. There are moments where this may stray too far, yet the debut is undeniably the work of a hugely talented poet. Night Sky With Exit Wounds will forever remain an insight into the poetics and life of arguably the best – dare I categorise – Asian-American poets of our time.