We are enamored with the new. We exalt the original, the innovative, the experimental. See the proliferation of lists declaring the literary world’s next protégés: Muzzle Magazine’s “30 under 30”; Buzzfeed’s “20 under 40 Debut Writers You Need to Be Reading”; the New Yorker’s “20 under 40.” There is an ethic of disposability built into this fetish: what is new cannot endure in newness. The work of Saigon-born, Brooklyn-based poet Ocean Vuong—who at only twenty-seven has received a Whiting Award, been profiled in the New Yorker, and seen his name populate lists like the ones above—seems, perhaps, an unlikely occasion for revising this cultural fixation on novelty. Still, one reason Vuong’s debut collection Night Sky with Exit Wounds feels so exquisite, so necessary, is that he offers another way to hold the present moment. Vuong refuses to cede long and complex cultural histories to the flashiness of the only-now. Neither will he relinquish the writing of history to those invested in domination and empire. Night Sky nudges the reader toward the wisdom of the quiet voice that insists, in the words of Lucille Clifton: “. . . they want me to remember / their memories / and i keep on remembering mine.”
Night Sky begins with knees and water. Its first poem opens:
In the body, where everything has a price,
I was a beggar. On my knees,
I watched, through the keyhole, not
the man showering, but the rain
Falling through him.
Called “Threshold,” the poem situates the collection in an in-between. Night Sky with Exit Wounds engages historical events that live in our collective memory: the assassination of JFK, September 11th and, above all, the Vietnam War and its afterlives. But in the first poem, we are not yet placed in a site of social recognition. Tethered to no imminently recognizable time or space, “Threshold” casts the reader into a shifting scape where even the body is not indivisible, where the domestic realm of the shower collapses into the elemental purview of the rain. The speaker’s position is uncertain: is he inside looking out or outside looking in—or are these designations made faulty or irrelevant at the threshold? Absent the cohesion of a scene I can readily flesh out, I submit to the music of language; to surrender to song, the poem cautions, is to be changed.
I didn’t know the cost
of entering a song—was to lose
your way back.
Not until deep into Night Sky with Exit Wounds did I realize I was still holding to the buoy of so much of what is offered in this first poem: voice, name, song, body, father, eyes—words that recur throughout the collection. Maggie Nelson, in her genre-crossing memoir The Argonauts, writes of “the pleasure of recognizing that one has to undergo the same realizations, write the same notes in the margin, return to the same themes in one’s work, relearn the same emotional truths, write the same book over and over again—not because one is stupid or obstinate or incapable of change, but because such revisitations constitute a life.”
Vuong’s poems are revisitations that comprise not a return so much as a turning over. They seek neither the myth of a static place nor the impossible feat of going back to an unchanged past; rather, these poems hold sacred the brief encounters that occur on the ever-changing grounds of time and space. From “Threshold”: “. . . one morning, my father would stop—a dark colt paused in downpour.” Later, the colt is not a muscled animal, but a gun, a “Colt .45” that the speaker finds inside “the shoe box / dusted with seven winters.” Language lives in the body, which never wholly empties. As the word colt resurfaces throughout the collection, its meanings shift and entangle to expose how the colt is a weapon (but not always), how the gun has a mouth, how language is violence, how violence is the father (but not always), how the horse is tenderness, and how the horse is Trojan. From “Trojan”: “He moves like any / other fracture, revealing the briefest doors.” What is broken is also newly opened. These poems show us that there is always a way in.
The lyric “I” runs through Night Sky—not like a trail cutting a path from one point to another, but like the “I” of a blues chorus accruing voices as it proceeds. The “I” of these poems is the morphing self shot through with refuse of the American dream. We hear it first in “Aubade with Burning City,” a poem that invokes Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas,” which the Armed Forces Radio played during the 1975 fall of Saigon. It is not only foreign subjects of American imperialism who experience the violence wreaked by the American dream—the dream corrodes even the most coveted icons of American idealism. Consider this passage from “Of Thee I Sing,” written in the voice of Jackie Onassis:
. . . But I’m a good
citizen, surrounded by Jesus
& ambulances. . . .
. . . My one white glove
glistening pink—with all
our American dreams.
And this from “Seventh Circle of the Earth,” where either Michael Humphrey or Clayton Capshaw, a gay couple murdered by immolation in their Dallas home in 2011, says to his love:
Laughter ashed / to air / to honey to baby / darling, / look. Look how happy
we are / to be no one / & still [ . . . ] American.
This dream is burning us down.
In Night Sky, violence lives in close proximity to love. Vuong recalls that violence and desire are both shades of intimacy, the laying on of hands always inflected by want: “He has ruined every beautiful / thing just to prove that beauty cannot change him,” the speaker says of her lover in “Immigrant Haibun.” The poems bring to the surface what violence we do to softness to sharpen what in us survives immigration, war, sex, adolescence—the memories of difficult displacements and passages that our bodies carry.
Even as the poems in Night Sky bear witness to violence, they also map the ways that gentleness might—and does—live. It is not the spectacular destruction of mastery, but the quiet brilliance of women, that underwrites the collection: “From men, I learned to praise the thickness of walls. / From women, I learned to praise.” Women sidestep a claim to knowledge rooted in conquest, offering instead a wrought tenderness, a strength not intent on showcasing its prowess.
Night Sky’s three untitled sections of exquisitely made poems enact this gentle wisdom. They are scattered with petals: “the dress / petaling off him like the skin / of an apple”; “each black petal / blasted”; “milkflower petals in the street / like pieces of a girl’s dress.” The textural delicateness—which persists even in the face of devastating destruction—asks the reader to hold these poems, and each other, tenderly. Night Sky offers so many ways to hold: a boy caressing his first lover, a father writing from prison, masturbation, a mother insisting her son know the origins of his name.
Throughout Night Sky, measurement holds together disparate bodies—not so much as a metric of valuation, but as a form of unlikely proximity: “a finger’s width of dark,” “a mirror the width of a coffin.” Measurement offers a convergence more intimate than metaphor—a coming-across modulated by the desire for an equivalence across systems; a touching. In “The Smallest Measure” the speaker is a doe sought by hunters: “this morning’s minutes, / this smallest measure of distance.” The doe knows what all hunted know: how time and space are collapsed by the chase, which is to say by want. And in “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous”:
. . . That a boy sleeping
beside a boy
must make a field
full of ticking. That to say your name
is to hear the sound of clocks
being turned back another hour
Like other forms of love, writing transforms how we experience time. The act of writing can lift the author from the day. A poem can make present a person long gone. In the poem “Daily Bread,” which reckons with the project of the book, the speaker is aware of how desire quickens language like a heartbeat: “Because in my hurry / to make her real, make her / here, I will forget to write / a bit of light into the room.” The longing to put words to the page is inflected by a quiet relentlessness: “but it’s my book / & I’ll say anything just to stay inside / this skin.” Even facing the risk of getting something wrong, of committing unintended violence, writing matters: “. . . & how / could I have known, that by pressing / this pen to paper, I was touching us / back from extinction?” The line breaks—after “pressing,” “touching us”—foreground the erotics of writing, which persist even as, taken together, the lines lift up the project of cultural memory. In the act of writing, the speaker both finds pleasure and recovers his people. Drawing on the queer energy that animates so many poems throughout the book, “Daily Bread” sets out the act of writing as an autoerotic practice that exists at the juncture of production and reproduction. Writing, for the speaker, is at once past-present and subjunctive—holding what was and what might have been, making possible a more expansive what-might-become.
“Devotion” concludes the book, and we end as we began: with knees and water. Ocean Vuong offers up a passage built not to last but to touch briefly: “Instead,” the poem opens, holding an unnamed past as it settles into its present. Again the speaker stands on the threshold of a new year and of a longer story that—as all stories do—starts in the middle:
Instead, the year begins
with my knees
another man leaving
into my throat.
The shifting ways that mercy, prayer, sex, and surrender inhabit the body on its knees have gathered in this collection—and now, at its end, they are summoned. How fleeting and precious the instant of sated desire, already turning even as it occurs:
Only to feel
this fully, this
entire, the way snow
touches bare skin—& is,
Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 2016. 89 pp. $16.00.