On the Threshold of Music: Ocean Vuong's Night Sky With Exit Wounds
Music prevails throughout Ocean Vuong’s 2016 debut poetry collection Night Sky With Exit Wounds published by Copper Canyon Press. The opening poem “Threshold” is rooted in the body/voice connection. The poet, presumably as a child, kneels in order to watch his father shower through a keyhole in the bathroom door, the father is singing, the sound flowing through him like the water raining down on him. Vuong brings us inside this intimate moment with absolute song, “His voice— / it filled me to the core/ like a skeleton. Even my name / knelt down inside me, asking / to be spared.” Only the poet is not spared, the father suspects the spying child and the furtive moment is exposed. What better metaphor for the exposure of the poet on the page?
Vuong’s voice trembles with remarkable vulnerability; I bought Night Sky With Exit Wounds after hearing Vuong read this year at a writing conference. I couldn’t not buy it, his voice was that haunting. I wanted to follow it further, to drown alongside him as he attempts to fill his father’s dying body with breath, or even further back to the fall of Saigon where the lyrics of Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas” signal the beginning of the evacuation of Vietnamese refugees, through his boyhood and sexual awakening, and to some of the most tender moments of the collection where Vuong’s mother is evoked. In “Someday I’ll love Ocean Vuong,” a poem of fraught embodiment, the poet attempts to reach a kind of atonement with his own body, he writes, “The most beautiful part / of your body is wherever / your mother’s shadow falls” and continues, “Ocean. Ocean / —get up. The most beautiful part of your body / is where it’s headed. & remember / loneliness is still time spent / with the world.” I can hardly type the words without tearing up.
But these poems are not only emotional and lyrical, they are formally challenging and exhibit a wisdom well beyond Vuong’s years. Hardly a single poem mirrors another, each form is instead informed by its content. The formal diversity of the poems exhibits a restless energy that ultimately compels the reader forward. In one of the most formally intelligent and challenging poems “Seventh Circle of Earth,” a title that immediately invokes hell, the brutal murder of a Texan gay couple is recounted in detail within the footnotes, while the space where the poem would normally be is left blank but for the numbers that float ominously down the page. In this way, the absence of these two men from earth becomes physical. By drawing attention to the aftereffects of hate crimes and human brutality, the poem reenacts the loss.
Poetry doesn’t typically reach a wide audience, print runs these days are usually in the hundreds, with bestsellers running in the thousands. And yet poetry, if you listen to its pulse, is thriving. There are more literary journals than ever before, more programs through which to study poetry, and spoken word communities are burgeoning. Poetry is experiencing a kind of renaissance, and poets like Ocean Vuong are at the forefront of this rebirth. Go to your local bookstore or library, get a cup of coffee or tea, and spend time with this poet, let his words fill your ears with music.
Night Sky With Exit Wounds
Copper Canyon Press $16.00 paperback 978-1-55659-495-3