by Michael Wasson
In the body, where everything has a price,
I was a beggar. On my knees,
So begins Ocean Vuong’s frontispiece to his haunting and quietly devastating debut collection, Night Sky with Exit Wounds.
It is here within the body where we begin to take in the world of this book. What really makes this entrance to the book remarkable is how Vuong’s speaker understands that the experiences we enter hold consequences. It is on the knees where we sacrifice and remain obedient to our senses. And it is the eye through which we witness the chaos of beauty. Vuong’s book stations us here who are—at the border of our flesh—trying to make sense of our lives.
Beginning the first section, Vuong shares with us the re-imagining and re-witnessing of poetic myth. From a snake left headless and still “in this version,” reminiscent of Milton’s Paraside Lost, to Telemachus pulling Odysseus “out / of the water” and dragging him by the hair through the crush and surf. This re-witnessing accomplishes and moves far beyond an appreciation for ancient literatures, but it gives us the opportunity to enter the myth to discover ourselves fully alive inside its narrative:
He moves like any / other fracture, revealing the briefest doors.
One of history’s most violent poems is Homer’s The Iliad. But what Night Sky with Exit Wounds introduces to us in “Trojan” is the idea of the body as the Trojan Horse—the strategic event between The Iliad and The Odyssey. The body is human-built. The body carries our “brutes” and war-sharpened “blades.” It holds our own people craving to return to their families and homelands. It even reminds us of our animal-likeness. But on a human level, it is the physical body we see when violence is enacted, or—as Vuong puts it so powerfully—“when the city burns.”
Night Sky with Exit Wounds grounds itself, too, in the American self, the American body, as a product of war. Here, insisted toward the end of “Self-Portrait as Exit Wounds” and the ending poem to the collection’s first section:
Yes—let me believe I was born
to cock back this rifle, smooth & slick, like a true
Charlie, like the footsteps of ghosts misted through rain
as I lower myself between the sights—& pray
that nothing moves.
What strikes me is the poem’s ability to “let” the “deathbeam” continue to pierce these different scenes inside the realm of a country amid violence. I find that even against a force of death, against all these different instances of terror, it is the speaker who argues to just let it happen. Why? Because the exit wound is the self. The exit wound is the speaker’s ability to move into and through the world. The exit wound now kneels down, praying for stillness to begin its process of healing.
Reading through the book countless times, even starting from the last poem to the first, I realize more and more just how powerful Vuong’s ability with form is. From longer poems to short couplets, gorgeously scattered lines broken and strewn over pages, to anaphora and prose breaks—the single poem that most entered me and stayed was “Seventh Circle of Earth”—with its title based on Dante’s seventh circle of Hell where the innermost of the three violent rings is made of burning sand and rain, meant to encase sodomites and blasphemers in flames.
But again, it was the form that forced me to look “into” and “away” from the mostly blank (or in this case, burned) pages. All that we see in the major white space—headed with the Dallas Voice epigraph about a gay couple, Michael Humphrey and Clayton Capshaw, murdered by immolation—are numbered footnotes, seemingly markers that are to guide us to the lines recorded at the bottom of the page. Vuong has single-handedly and via the labor of lyric forced us to stare into the white ash of immolation. So by replicating that “look into the wreckage yet we look away” urgency, we are then made to hear the voices of these lovers.
4. … Speak—/ until your voice is nothing / but the crackle / of charred
Toward the end of Night Sky with Exit Wounds, Vuong includes this devastatingly tender and gracious poem first published at The New Yorker that echoes not simply Frank O’Hara and Roger Reeves, but the role of lullaby—the role of song and lyric to comfort us, even in the face of the world’s terrors:
Don’t be afraid, the gunfire
is only the sound of people
trying to live a little longer
& failing. 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.
Ocean mentions in an interview with David Winter that this poem is his way to “speak to my own shadow,” and what better way to comfort than to know that our own darkness, too, is listening and living there breathing beside us.
Many of us were beyond thrilled when Copper Canyon announced that they would be publishing Ocean Vuong’s first full book. Many of us had one (or both) of his chapbooks (if they weren’t sold out at the time) and read his poems as they entered the world. Many of us were changed by encountering his work—like beautiful literature should. How it challenges us to enter a space and be transformed by language.
And many of us I’m sure learned from how his speakers paid homage to the beauty inside the crush that his words seem to do so gently. So where do we stand after entering and departing Night Sky with Exit Wounds? We stand without a doubt—as the world continues to move under our feet—in awe of this brilliant and humble talent gifted to American poetry.
I am thankful having his book with me. Its pages continuing to remind me, “are you listening?” I am.
Buy it from Copper Canyon Press: $16.00.
Michael Wasson is the author of This American Ghost (YesYes Books, 2017), recipient of the Vinyl 45 Chapbook Prize. He is nimíipuu from the Nez Perce Reservation and lives abroad.