One of the most enduring gifts of poetry is its ability to offer perspectives that might otherwise have been unavailable to the reader. Like a window, some poets grant us the opportunity to experience a completely unknown way of life, offering a privileged glance inside of a world that can feel overwhelming and, occasionally, unwelcoming. Ocean Vuong’s first full-length collection with Copper Canyon Press, Night Sky with Exit Wounds, is an ingenuitive balance of empathy and intimacy, masterfully crafted and utterly heartbreaking. These poems exist to educate and influence, but only for those who are willing to learn.
Each poem exhibits an unyielding command of language and sound, with a poised and practiced voice lending to endless accounts of vivid imagery (“I approach a field. A black piano waits / at its center. I kneel to play / what I can. A single key. A tooth / tossed down a well.” from “Queen Under The Hill”) and stunning metaphors (“O mother, / O minute hand, teach me / how to hold a man the way thirst / holds water,” from “A Little Closer to the Edge”). Vuong frequently oscillates styles, the length and heft of his poems changing to suit a more cohesive narrative function, while each shift in format is met with a new level of proficiency. There is even a haiku attached to the end of a lyrical prose piece titled “Immigrant Haibun”: “Summer in the mind. / God opens his other eye: / two moons in the lake.”
The sincerity that permeates Vuong’s book is steeped in the authors past, resulting in a series of transcendent poems exploring his life as a Vietnamese immigrant and the realities of existing as an out, queer individual. Heavy with the weight of responsibility, these subjects are brought to the forefront of the author’s poems and handed to the audience with aplomb.
Images of sex and violence stand like totems in Night Sky, altering the experience of reading the collection from one of passive interest to active engagement and forced self-awareness. It grants the reader a sense of presence, which is not normally afforded to them, by taking their hand and leading them to a world on fire. As seen in “Aubade With Burning City,” Vuong writes of his grandmother’s memories from the fall of Saigon, during which the Armed Forces Radio broadcast “White Christmas” by Irving Berlin as American and Vietnamese citizens were evacuated from the city: “When the dust rises, a black dog / lies panting in the road. Its hind legs / crushed into the shine / of a white Christmas.” Many of the references to wartime conflict are painful to endure, but this is the power of effective writing, and Vuong knows exactly how to transition the reader into the thick of it.
Through the pervasive and disarming turmoil of fractured living, Vuong also offers his readers a tender and crucial examination of love, the most potent example of which is found in my favorite poem in the collection, entitled “The Gift,” wherein the narrator teaches their mother to read in English: “a b c a b c a b c / She doesn’t know what comes after. / So we begin again: / a b c a b c a b c / But I can see the fourth letter: / a strand of black hair – unraveled / from the alphabet / & written / on her cheek.” The brief glances of vulnerability in the author’s words bleed through the echoes of war and suffering, poignant and necessary in the face of chaos. Moments of warm sincerity even find a way to carve a space for themselves, as in the poem “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous,” where Vuong writes, “Don’t we touch each other just to prove we are still here?”
The collection is a deeply personal self-examination that often feels intimidating to witness. It is rare to encounter poetry so raw that it borders on the voyeuristic. Vuong writes like each poem is a round-ending punch to the gut, and he is determined to leave the ring with the title belt. There is a unique force to his sensitivity, a strength behind his words that rallies amidst the darkness of pain, suffering, and time. Night Sky is a sublime, hominine gesture from a championed poet, brimming with gripping reflections of life and the small buds of hope that we carry inside us all.