Yemassee Review: “Night Sky With Exit Wounds” by Ocean Vuong

Copper Canyon Press, Apr. 2016
Paperback: 84 pages, $16.00
Review by Alex Howerton

“Into the Breach,” a poem from the arresting midsection of Ocean Vuong’s Night Sky With Exit Wounds, begins with a curious epigraph. Ventriloquizing Jeffrey Dahmer, the serial killer dubbed the “Milwaukee Cannibal,” the poem suggests that

The only motive that there was was to...keep them with me as long as possible, even if it meant just keeping a part of them.

Dahmer gave this quote when responding to a question about the culpability of his parents in failing to raise him, claiming that his atrocities were his and his alone. Bearing that in mind, we might see “Into the Breach,” a poem concerned with the difficulty of loving another man, as a complex negotiation of the influence the speaker’s parental figures wield, hovering, sometimes at the periphery, sometimes the center, of Vuong’s splendid collection. Indeed, the speaker’s parents have left their fingerprints all over this text, from the anxiety of lineage in this line, from “Notebook Fragments”:

An American soldier fucked a Vietnamese farmgirl. Thus my mother exists. Thus I exist.

to the poem “My Father Writes From Prison,” which begins with untranslated Vietnamese correspondence from the speaker’s own father. Even the book’s dedication, to “mother [& father]” suggests the profound importance of family and parenthood, even as the speaker claims his own identity by extricating himself from their influence throughout the collection. That capacious desire for both connection to and freedom from authoritative structures defines much of the work Vuong’s collection acheives.

If the context of Dahmer’s epigraph provides one of Night Sky’s many preoccupations, its content offers another. Retaining important memories is, in fact, at times Vuong’s chief modus operandi; as with Dahmer, however, this process of enshrinement is often violent and effacing. Two poems in particular demonstrate the violence of memory: “Aubade With Burning City,” which invokes Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas” to soundtrack a depiction of the fall of Saigon during Operation Frequent Wind; and the aforementioned “Notebook Fragments,” which juxtaposes snapshots and observations of a queer man’s adolescence and young adulthood with a history and etymology of the grenade’s use in Vietnam. These poems feature ruthlessly efficient verse, such as “Aubade”’s

Snow scraping against the windows. Snow shredded
                                    with gunfire. Red sky.

The poem’s emotional force crescendos each time Vuong interjects lyrics from “White Christmas” into the carnage of a besieged city, while its distinct occupation with girls’ dresses foregrounds the sexual violence that ends the poem:

Open, he says.
                                    She opens.

“Notebook Fragments,” though it retains a degree of the horrific violence from the poem above, maneuvers sexuality as a vexing, if not damning thing. Here the speaker recalls an encounter:

I met a man, not you. In his room the Bibles shook on the shelf
            from candlelight. His scrotum a bruised fruit. I kissed it

lightly, the way one might kiss a grenade
            before hurling it right into the night’s mouth.

This poem, appearing near the end of the collection, still links sexual acts with the violence of war, but does so with a degree of tenderness, privileging the stretch of time that precedes destruction. These quieter moments are equally worthy of our memory. The end of the poem conjures an image of Nguyễn Chí Thiện, Vietnamese poet and dissident who spent twenty-seven years in prison, and who committed all of his poetry to memory after his manuscripts were burned. Perhaps that’s the greatest accomplishment of Ocean Vuong’s Night Sky With Exit Wounds; despite impediment or impingement, these are poems that want, and want you, to remember.

Born in Saigon, Vietnam, Ocean Vuong lives in New York City.

Alex Howerton is a PhD Candidate at the University of South Carolina.