Many things are mistaken or have been mistaken for something else in Ocean Vuong's gorgeous and tender book of poems, Night Sky with Exit Wounds.
Vuong came to America as a child, via a refugee camp in Thailand and he ended up there via his family's flight from Saigon when the Americans pulled out of the war. His art is transfixed upon the image of exit wound which summons the narrative of departures, loss, violence, and war in "Aubade with Burning City," "Trojan," and "Untitled" (after 9/11 and Mark Rothko). This is met in equal measure with narratives of love and devotion. Vuong explores the father/son connection in "Threshold" "Telemachus," and "The Smallest Measure."
He also writes about lovers and gender-bending. In "Trojan," Vuong writes: "…he steps/into a red dress. A flame caught / in a mirror the width of a coffin. Steel glinting/ in the back of his throat. A flash. A white / asterisk. Look/ how he dances…" This act of courage has the potential to invoke violence too.
Vuong is a master of figurative language. Anne Carson, in her own poem, "What I Think About Most" writes "Aristotle says that metaphor causes the mind to experience itself // in the act of making a mistake." Metaphor transfers meaning between seemingly disparate objects, and it is a delightful experience. In addition, Vuong's sound patterns are resonant. His vowel harmony or assonance is skillful, as well as the alliteration.
His poems in this collection are unified by theme and, in each poem, by the arrangement and rearrangement of the totemic images. Kate Green, a poetry teacher I've had, used this concept for the recurring images in a book of poems. Each is a doorway to story. Each writer has a unique set of totemic images.
These words act as a constellation that will guide you through the work. Exit wound is of course caused by a gun, but it also a wound his father suffered in Viet Nam, Vuong's self portrait, the stars in the sky, the painful end of love, and light coming through a hole in the wall. It was the final note in JFK's life. As one poem about his grandmother suggests, it is the baby that is born of rape.
He is a poet engaged in a literary conversation with many other stories and writers. This deepens the meaning and recognizes the canonical works that have inspired him. Allusions are made to the Odyssey, Li-Young Lee, Rilke's "Archaic Torso of Apollo," Orpheus and Eurydice, and Icarus. In the ending poem, "...so what if my feathers are burning / I never asked for flight / Only to feel this fully...."
Not just literature, but Voung evokes music. Notably these are "Of Thee I Sing," from the American anthem, a poem about Jacqueline Kennedy in the convertible when JFK was assassinated and "Always and Forever," a song by Luther Vandross, his father's favorite song. "…Tonight / I wake and mistake the bathwater wrung // from mother's hair for his voice."
From Vuong's book notes, I find two other contemporary poets, both gay men, whose work has influenced his own. "Acquired Immune Deficiency Disorder" by Eduardo Corrall uses the images of a deer, a harp, strings, rain. It's published in Verse Daily at http://www.versedaily.org/acquired.shtml "Parable" by Carl Phillips narrates a story about a saint who could call up a full catch of fish by a gesture of his hand. You can read it here: http://www.nereview.com/vol-35-no-3-2014/carl-phillips/ These poems nearly form a frame for this book.
For navigation, inspiration, and romance, Voung lifts his narrative and lyric work to the stars. He writes"the stars / were always what we knew // they were: the exit wounds/ of every/ misfired word." His narratives connect to meta-narratives, and it's all done with aching beauty. I recommend that you always keep this book.
Event: Poetry Book Club on Jan 9 at 5:30 pm at Zenith Books, facilitated by Sheila Packa https://www.zenithbookstore.com/
- Poem:"Some Day I'll Love Ocean Vuong" (published in the New Yorker and also in this book): https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/05/04/someday-ill-love-ocean-vuong
- Book Review "Ocean Vuong's Night Sky with Exit Wounds: Migration, America and Viet Nam" https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/jul/20/night-sky-exit-wounds-ocean-vuong-review
- Biography: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/oct/03/ocean-vuong-forward-prize-vietnam-war-saigon-night-sky-with-exit-wounds
- Essay: "A Mind for Metaphors" by Ann Townsend: https://www.vqronline.org/vqr-symposium/mind-metaphors