by Grant Blume
Some poems provide more clear meanings and ideas, while others are more elusive or subtle in their emotions and purposes. Ocean Vuong’s Night Sky With Exit Wounds is of the subtle kind. Strong language and evocative words are in the foreground of Ocean Vuong’s full-length debut, while the larger themes are deep within Vuong’s carefully chosen words. That being said, biographical information is important in understanding much of the poetry in Vuong’s book. Beneath the lyrical but elusive language of Vuong’s Night Sky With Exit Wounds, emotions and themes swell like the motifs and subtle hints that develop throughout. This expressive but subtle writing makes the book all the more rewarding to its readers.
Vuong uses caustic language describing violence paired with references to nature or more serene things in order to create a juxtaposition of perspectives and interpretations of violence. Poems like “Telemachus” or “Aubade with Burning City” serve as good examples of this. In “Telemachus,” Vuong writes of the “bullet hole in his back, brimming with seawater.” But an even more obvious and juxtaposition is presented to readers in “Aubade with Burning City,” in which the lyrics of Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas” are intertwined with descriptions of the evacuation before the fall of Saigon. Lines like “May your Christmas be white as the traffic guard unstraps his holster” especially create an uneasy relationship between innocence and violence that develops into a stronger theme as the book progresses. The poem later continues:
The treetops glisten and children listen, the chief of police
facedown in a pool of Coca-Cola.
A palm-sized photo of his father soaking
beside his left ear.
The song moving through the city like a widow.
A white … A white … I’m dreaming of a curtain of snow
falling from her shoulders.
Snow crackling against the window. Snow shredded
with gunfire. Red sky.
Snow on the tanks rolling over the city walls.
A helicopter lifting the living just out of reach.
Contrasts between “children that listen” and the chief of police lying face down, or between red and white, make the poem more effective and harsh in its realities. Additionally, the comparison develops the thematic idea of how violence is perceived differently.
Vuong is thorough in developing his themes, motifs, and ideas. There are phrases or subjects that are repeated throughout many of the poems within the book, making it consistent and engaging. Vuong again described how actions or stories can be adjusted depending on its context. Vuong writes “Through books, I learned you could use words to make a person good or bad.” This reemphasizes the duality and contrasts of the books images, like the evacuation of Saigon.
While he maintains thematic ideas surrounding violence throughout the book, Vuong develops many other thematic ideas, too. His father is mentioned often in Night Sky With Exit Wounds, as this relationship is what much of the book is about. And on the cover of the book, the child can be seen wearing a shirt reading “I love daddy.” This feature seems to make it more noticeable that his father is missing from the cover photo. Vuong mostly discusses the father figure in Night Sky With Exit Wounds as an adversary. In the poem “Self-Portrait as Exit Wounds,” Vuong writes of “the grandfather fucking the pregnant farmgirl in the back of his army jeep.” This violent language associated with the grandfather here is similar to much of the language surrounding other father figures throughout the book. In the poem “Always & Forever,” the narrator’s father gives him a box with a Colt .45 in it. The poem starts with what seems to be a sentimental exchange between the father and his son:
“Open this when you need me most,
he said, as he slid the shoe box, wrapped
in duct tape, beneath my bed.”
Additionally, Vuong includes the boy’s mother in this poem. This might serve as an extension of the idea that different characters perceive or interact with violence in different ways. The poem later continues:
…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
The narrator contemplates the effects of an act of violence in reference to two different contexts, and wonders what difference the contexts might make. What does Vuong mean when he wonders if the hole would be “wide as morning”? And would would an entry wound make a hole wide as morning? The answers are within Vuongs deeply evocative language and clever lines throughout the book. And with careful reading, readers might find answers to the many questions Night Sky With Exit Wounds poses.
The subtlety and sometimes ambiguity in Vuong’s poems are one of its strongest aspects. Amidst the highly evocative but honest language within the book, there is an endless possibility of meanings to be found in regards to humanity, family, emotions, and more. And where meaning is hidden too deep for myself or other readers to find, there is beauty in the words used. Lines like “& remember, loneliness is still time spent with the world” or “A mother’s love neglects pride the way fire neglects the cries of what it burns” illustrate Vuong’s concise wisdom and remind readers the power that a single line or even just a few words can hold.
Ocean Vuong’s Night Sky With Exit Wounds is a deeply personal and intimate recollection of events that have occurred in his life. The poems are a gift, courageously and honestly given to its readers. Through Vuong’s careful word choice and form, we are made aware of great meaning, beauty, and emotion in each of his stories and experiences. Poetry like this makes readers wonder: what meaning and emotion could be derived from our own experiences if we had the same preciseness and control of our words?