Book Review 8: “Night Sky With Exit Wounds”

 

Genre: Poetry

Have in the Library? Yes

 

This chapbook is a welcome surprise for those (like me) who have trouble with poetry. Ocean Vuong’s collection of 35 poems are direct, simple but subtle, painful yet light. They glimmer with repeated motifs: fathers, guns, fields and bodies. Ocean Vuong writes from many intersections: as a Vietnamese immigrant in America, a war survivor, a gay man. Yet none of these elements overwhelm. Instead, they meld together into one hymn of a man trying to find his way through his own history.

The poems can be read individually at random but it’s rewarding to read the book straight through, beginning with his invocation, a poem appropriately titled “Threshold”:

“In the body, where everything has a price, / I was beggar ” he begins, and the rest unfurls from there. The stars are “what we always knew/they were: the exit wounds/of every/misfired word.” In “Aubade with Burning City,” the fall of Saigon is interspersed with verses from “White Christmas.” Like a “good son,” he “seal[s] [his] father’s lips/ with my own & begin/ the faithful work of drowning.”

Vuong’s language is wonderful. He doesn’t use arcane words, just precision: the room is “bomb-bright,” a father is “all famine & fissure.”

To me, the loveliest part of this book is hope. For Vuong, hope seems delicately balanced, more a process and less a destination. “Dear God, if you are a season, let it be the one I passed through/ to get here,” he says. And by the end it seems he has arrived at a place that is at least peaceful.  In my favorite poem, “Someday I’ll Love Ocean Vuong,” he is soft and calming: “Ocean, don’t be afraid./ The end of the road is so far ahead/it is already behind us.”

For all its sorrow, “the refugee camp sick with smoke & half-sung/ hymns,” Night Sky With Exit Wounds is a book of healing. As he says in “Seventh Circle of Earth” : “Say amen. Say amend./ Say yes. Say yes/ anyway.”

 

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