In his latest collection "Night Sky With Exit Wounds," Vuong delves into his family culture and tumultuous childhood. (Image via Amherst Bulletin)
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As a Vietnamese immigrant and member of the LGBTQ+ community, Vuong is a unique, empathy-inspiring voice in the poetry world.

The life of Ocean Vuong, a 30-year-old poet, is a well of experience from which he draws beautiful, critically acclaimed poems, boasting reputable awards like the Pushcart Prize and the T.S. Eliot Prize. Vuong was born in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, and immigrated to Hartford, Connecticut, along with six relatives when he was just 2 years old, after spending a year in a Philippine refugee camp.

He published his highly anticipated debut novel, “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous,” last June, but it was his first full-length poetry collection, “Night Sky with Exit Wounds,” that elevated him to public esteem. Much of his work in that collection centers on his Vietnamese heritage and identity as seen through his parents’ experiences and his own experiences, flavored with his perspective as a member of the LGBTQ+ community. In its entirety, “Night Sky with Exit Wounds” is deeply personal, historically informative and breathtakingly beautiful.

The father figure seeps through nearly every poem, shaping the arc of the collection. As it is poor poetry etiquette to read the poet’s life into their work, unless directly stated, I’m not going to assume that every time a father is mentioned in a poem it is referring to Vuong’s father, or an exact account of events that took place. What I will point out, however, are the consistent themes surrounding fatherhood in “Night Sky with Exit Wounds,” specifically distance, violence and also devotion on the son’s part.

Often, the poems that touch on fatherhood show the speaker taking a more passive role watching the father’s erratic behavior, but not commenting on the morality of said behavior. These poems tend to include violent images, like the father taking a chainsaw to a kitchen table or chasing the mother around with a knife, and sometimes it includes gentler images, like in this segment from “Always & Forever”:

“& here, sunk in folds of yellowed news

                       -paper, lies the Colt.45—silent & heavy

as an amputated hand. I hold the gun

                       & wonder if an entry wound in the night

would make a hole wide as morning. That if

                       I looked through it, I would see the end of this

sentence. Or maybe just a man kneeling

                       at the boy’s bed, his grey overalls reeking of gasoline

& cigarettes. Maybe the day will close without

                       the page turning as he wraps his arms around

the boy’s milk-blue shoulders. 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”

Here, even the gentle image of the father kneeling at his son’s bed is marred by his clutch tightening and the violent language surrounding the gun. Yet, despite this violent imagery, the narrator withholds judgment on the father, conveying an almost childlike devotion to or understanding of the parent.

While Vuong’s Vietnamese heritage vibrantly colors his work in “Night Sky with Exit Wounds,” it is most powerful when it comes out through the narrative of his father. “In Newport I Watch My Father Lay His Cheek on a Beached Dolphin’s Wet Back” behaves as a sort of PTSD-induced flashback, with text erratically bouncing from one side of the page to the other as the narrative shifts from Vuong’s father, comforting a beached dolphin, to memories of the war.

“His knees sunk

in ink-black mud, he guides

a ribbon of water to the pulsing

blowhole. Ok. Okay. AK

-47. I am eleven only once

as he kneels to gather the wet refugee

into his arms.”

Again, here we see a gentle portrayal of the father figure, who, despite (or because of) having flashbacks of the war, is cradling this wailing dolphin in his arms. This gentle image is juxtaposed with another horrific memory earlier in the poem, but from Vuong: His father chasing him and his mother down the street with a hammer.

This juxtaposition, of gentle and serene with violent and upending, carries into Vuong’s depictions of the Vietnam War. Despite the horrific moments and scenes Vuong depicts, he describes them in such a way that it is almost nonchalant, casual, as if that’s how things are supposed to be. Of course, it is not how things are supposed to be, and Vuong knows this — but his casual tone is what makes these images all the more horrifying.

In “Aubade with Burning City,” Vuong depicts a moment from the Vietnam War where the Armed Forces played Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas” as a code to begin evacuation of American civilians and Vietnamese refugees during the Fall of Saigon. His interspersing of the lyrics and his poetry is chilling:

“A military truck speeds through the intersection, children

                                   Shrieking inside. A bicycle hurled

           Through a store window. When the dust rises, a black dog

                       Lies panting in the road. Its hind legs

                                                           Crushed into the shine

                                               Of a White Christmas.”

Much of the collection follows in these poems’ footsteps of depressing subject matter. As Vuong shifts his focus to bring in LGBTQ themes, his poems tend to remain as bleak, yet include a subtle tone of empowerment that rings of the narrator having his voice heard.

In “Trojan,” Vuong recalls the legend of the Trojan Horse to parallel the story of a cross-dressing boy, or a potentially closeted trans individual, expressing the boy’s feelings as he twirls in a red dress:

                                                                                    “Look

                                                           how he dances. The bruise-blue wallpaper peeling

                                               into hooks as he twirls, his horse

-head shadow thrown on the family

                                                                       portraits, glass cracking beneath

its stain. He moves like any

                                   other fracture, revealing the briefest doors. The dress

                                                           petaling off him like the skin

of an apple. As if their swords

                                   aren’t sharpening

                       inside him. This horse with its human

face. This belly full of blades

                                               & brutes. As if dancing could stop the heart

           of his murderer from beating

                       between his ribs. How easily a boy in a dress

                                                                       the red of shut eyes

vanishes

                       beneath the sound of his own

galloping.”

This excerpt shows the boy’s pain but also the resistance, resilience and rage lurking inside him like warriors inside the Trojan Horse — and in showing his resistance, Vuong allows the reader to experience a moment, however brief, of empowerment before sinking back into the darkness once more.

But the darkness, as in all good poetry, serves a purpose. The darkness in “Night Sky with Exit Wounds” is designed to take the reader on a journey of pain, where they will gain greater understanding for those who have struggled with their fathers, LGBTQ+ identity or a cultural heritage associated with violence. This empathetic view is why we, as readers, need Ocean Vuong’s perspective and writing; it cuts to the core, and opens our eyes.

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