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:
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
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
beneath the sound of his own
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.