Unhealable Hunger: On Ocean Vuong’s Night Sky with Exit Wounds
By Austin Segrest
DECEMBER 13, 2016
It seems like as soon as Ocean Vuong gets you grounded in a poem, he’s taking flight, slipping out of your hands. As if everything’s winged and prone to fly off the page. From “Someday I’ll Love Ocean Vuong”:
. . . Like how the spine
won’t remember its wings
no matter how many times our knees
kiss the pavement.
Night Sky with Exit Wounds is lyrically haunted by a Vietnamese family’s refugee experience, as well as by the speaker’s loss of his father—a passionate, violent former POW who seems to have flown the coop and ended up in the cage, if not shot. These wounds are writ large on the book’s cover: a photograph of a despondent-looking toddler wearing an I LOVE DADDY T-shirt, flanked by females, and no daddy in the picture. Everyone’s identities are masked by two faux-censor strips, one containing the book’s title (covering the women’s eyes) and another the byline (over the toddler’s eyes). Who understands temporality, time’s flight, better than a refugee? Who needs lyric poetry’s answer to flight (and its connections here to the ecstasy of sex, drugs, violence, god, and song) more?
Hence Vuong’s pistol-waving lovers on the nod. From “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous”:
It’s not too late. Our heads haloed
with gnats & summer too early to leave
any marks. Your hand
under my shirt as static
intensifies on the radio.
Your other hand pointing
your daddy’s revolver
to the sky. Stars dropping one
by one in the crosshairs.
This means I won’t be
afraid if we’re already
here. Already more than skin
can hold. 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
finds our clothes
on your mother’s front porch, shed
like week-old lilies.
Vuong’s lyricism goes in the other direction, too. The speaker often kneels and sinks down: he spies, takes aim, climbs in, gives head. It’s the entry wound to fire/song/bloom’s exit wound. From “Logophobia”:
I drill the ink
into a period.
The deepest hole,
where the bullet,
my father’s back,
It’s a submissive posture, but it’s one he’s learned can also be a position of creativity and power. From “Devotion”:
. . . & there’s nothing
more holy than holding
a man’s heartbeat between
your teeth, sharpened
with too much
air. This mouth the last
entry into January…
If we understand anything about Vuong’s speaker, it’s that he’s barely here. The words “here” and “to live” are never taken lightly. Both words are chanted, charms in themselves: “live, live, live” (“Self-Portrait as Exit Wounds”), “here here here” (“Ode to Masturbation”). Whether flying off, burning up in song, or hiding, part of what this speaker wants is “to disappear” (“On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous”). From “Untitled (Blue, Green, and Brown): oil on canvas: Mark Rothko: 1952”:
. . . my greatest accolade was to walk
across the Brooklyn Bridge
& not think of flight.
But the hardest task, the impossible “accolade” (perhaps “achievement”?), is “to hold every flight & fall at once” (“On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous”).
In the first poem, the very young speaker watches his singing father shower through a keyhole. From “Threshold”:
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: guitar strings snapping
over his globed shoulders.
The poem starts to lyrically sublimate when the shower becomes “rain / falling through him.” This turns out not to be mere poetic caprice. Vietnam’s tropical rain follows the family through the book. The idea seems to be that you can take the refugee out of Vietnam, but you can’t take Vietnam out of the refugee. In the traumatized lyric, things and people, times and lives, are permeable. Even a poem about masturbation’s “briefest form / of forever yes” can’t keep out the “claw marks / of your brothers / being dragged / away from you” (“Ode to Masturbation”). The shower water turns hyper-lyrical, musical: the lavishly instrumentalized strands of water (“guitar strings snapping”) and the written-purely-for-sound “over his globed shoulders.” The father himself might be a musician. The poem ends:
He was singing. It is all I remember.
For in the body, where everything has a price,
I was alive. I didn’t know
there was a better reason.
That one morning, my father would stop
—a dark colt paused in a downpour—
& listen for my clutched breath
behind the door. I didn’t know the cost
of entering a song—was to lose
your way back.
So I entered. So I lost.
I lost it all with my eyes
In hindsight, Vuong’s speaker can see it all too clearly. The repeated “I didn’t know” is a telltale sign of retrospective irony. This recalls the penultimate lines of Robert Hayden’s “Those Sunday Mornings”: “What did I know, what did I know / of love’s austere and lonely offices?”
But Vuong’s poem isn’t about gratitude or not reciprocating the gruff love of a father’s “banked fires.” The only thing his father gave him was a gun. From “Always & Forever”:
. . . I open
the shoe box dusted with seven winters
& 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 as wide as morning.
Crouching behind the bathroom door, his impressionable child-self unwittingly but ironically mimes both the physical and mental attitude of his father as a prisoner of war. He’s enthralled, vigilant, and afraid (he knows his father is violent). This is his inheritance: a secondary trauma transmitted father-to-son, inflicted father-upon-son, borne on his father’s song through the keyhole, which functions as a kind of wound/mouth. It will manifest in the speaker’s poetry, dreams, fears, and desires.
This moment of traumatic lyrical genesis recalls J. S. Mill’s formulation of pure poetry, much quoted by lyric theorists: “like the lament of a prisoner in a solitary cell, ourselves listening, unseen, in the next.” From Vuong’s “My Father Writes from Prison”:
I crushed a monarch midflight / just to know how it felt / to have something change / in my hands / here are those hands / some nights they waken when touched / by music or rather the drop of rain / memory erases into music . . .
The “tradition” behind Vuong’s lyrical flight and fall, his tongue’s fire and bloom, is something more personal and sinister than Eliot’s standstill “tongues of flame” “infolded / into a crowned knot of fire.” It’s a Vietnamese boat people’s flight, napalm’s burning, the blooming milk flowers of fallen Saigon, a prisoner’s singing.
Caesar’s wounds cry out for witness and justice; trauma’s wounds gape like hungry mouths to be filled by some reminder of that which made them—a damaged need to be healed. Vuong’s exquisite need for a “hand . . . to hold / [him]self to this world” like a “word / being nailed / to its meaning” makes him one of lyric’s most prominent ambassadors (again from “Ode to Masturbation”).
It’s so psychologically compelling that it’s all too easy to just go along with it. But what about the poetry? Too often Vuong’s “unhealable hunger” (again, “Masturbation”) comes off overdetermined and overwrought. Like this ironic Rilkean riposte from “Torso of Air”:
Suppose you do change your life.
& the body is more than
a portion of night—sealed
with bruises. Suppose you woke
& found your shadow replaced
by a black wolf. The boy, beautiful
& gone . . .
Vuong might call it “the faithful work of drowning” (“Telemachus”), but his buoyant lyric, even as it overreaches, won’t stay down. In different hands, it might. And that, along with the high premium placed today on vulnerability, is a big part of this book’s appeal.
Originally from Alabama, AUSTIN SEGREST now lives and teaches in Wisconsin. His poems can be found in The Yale Review, The Threepenny Review, Image, Ploughshares, Shenandoah, Blackbird, and New England Review.
Night Sky with Exit Wounds. By Ocean Vuong. Copper Canyon Press, 2016.