The Mum Poet Club Recommended Reading: Night Sky With Exit Wounds By Ocean Vuong
By Lauren Thomas
The first time I heard of Ocean Vuong I was listening to a Faber poetry podcast, mostly because it had Emily Berry on it, who I was developing a bit of a lockdown obsession with. The podcast started with a reading of Ocean Vuong’s poem ‘You Guys’ and as I listened, my mouth literally dropped open. I couldn’t really believe what I was hearing, Vuong’s voice was like glass and the poem which had started off unusually enough to pique my interest, was taking a really weird turn (think dead rabbits in a bath) and thus my new lockdown obsession was born.
I am someone who is notoriously late to the parade for most things (ok, so 5 years for this one is particularly late) so I had managed to miss Night Sky with Exit Wounds the first time it was published in 2016. But when it landed on my door mat sometime in late December, I was floored once again by this stunning poet and his intriguing book.
Vuong and his family migrated to America in 1988 when Vuong was 2. They had spent months in a refugee camp in the Philippines following the Vietnam war. Vuong grew up in America, identifies as a gay man and his writing often looks to voice the voiceless. He campaigns against anti-Asian racism and his position as a prominent Vietnamese-American writer has afforded him the opportunity of perspective. In 2019 he published The New York Times bestselling novel, On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous, (also on my to read pile – late again) and has won numerous awards including the T.S Eliot prize.
Night Sky With Exit Wounds, amongst other things, re-imagines stories from Vuong’s family history, and their experiences in the aftermath of the violence of the war. He also explores the dark side of America’s conscience in relationship to its geopolitical power and the persecution of anything deemed ‘other’ within some factions of mainstream white American society. There are also poems about love, identity and desire against a backdrop of trauma and loss in many forms.
On a really basic level, Vuong is just an absolute master of painting stories. The whole book is unbelievably beautiful. I lost count of the number of times I gasped out loud at the bone dissolving images he uses and immersing myself in this collection was something I can only describe as tantamount to drowning. I was utterly submerged, my senses flooded with colour, light and textures that I can’t really describe in any other way. But he’s also just so very good with presenting the paradox of what is beautiful and what is not, what is tender, what is brutal. It’s as if he’s walking through a garden chopping the heads off roses. Always and Forever, one of many poems dealing with the father son dynamic, does this in such a poignant way and these lines were a definite gasp inducer with their searing juxtaposition ‘The boy pretending/ to be asleep as his father’s clutch tightens. /The way the barrel, aimed at the sky, must tighten around a bullet/to make it speak. His relationship with his father is reportedly an ambiguous one and some of the most visceral poems in the collection suggest this, for example, Telemachus and Threshold. Vuong’s father left the family shortly after their arrival in America and was not present for much of Vuong’ childhood – Vuong seems to have created a myth out of the idea of the father figure in this collection.
For those of us interested in writing our own poetry, Vuong’s imaginative use of form is worth noting. ‘The Seventh Circle of Earth’ is a poem written in the voices of Michael Humphrey and Clayton Capshaw, a gay couple who were murdered when their Dallas home was deliberately set on fire. It is written as footnotes to an imaginary text and is particularly affecting. By using this structure, Vuong is able to depict the inexplicable and insistently commemorate the horrendous murder of the couple. The footnotes create a sense of the something unspeakable being firmly documented and the unwritten text with the reference numbers hanging in the air, feel like an acknowledgement of other nameless, faceless victims of persecution. It speaks of America’s denial, perhaps its inability to hold itself to account and it reminded me a bit of the appendix in Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale, questioning whose histories are told by whom and from whose perspective. Vuong does much in the way of telling histories, he is from a generation of teenagers whose adolescence had to navigate the immediate aftermath of 9/11 and he has spoken of the fear that dominated the domestic American self-identity at the time. He has also talked about a desire to normalise writing about the aftermath of conflict and the sense of displacement that comes with migration, pointing out that for many people who are not white westerners this has always been a part of life and a part of history. In a way he has done this with the stories he tells in the collection. Favourites include Because its Summer - for its stunning imagery and exploration of themes to do with love and identity. To My Father/To My Future Son - award for best description of a car crash. Aubade with Burning City – a masterclass in depicting the horror of war and Ode to Masturbation because, in @Lollysnow’s words, ‘It’s epic.’
This collection is both illuminating and devastating. Read it if you get a chance, but also listen to Vuong reading ‘You Guys’ because it’s also quite different to everything in this collection. Obviously, it was recorded ages ago in 2018 because, as I mentioned, I’m not very good at being ahead of the game - but I am very glad I caught up with this one.