'The faithful work of drowning'

Ocean Vuong, Night Sky with Exit Wounds

Jonathan Cape, 96pp, £10.00, ISBN 9781911214519

reviewed by Charlie Baylis

Ocean Vuong's Night Sky with Exit Wounds has received a great deal of praise and attention on both sides of the Atlantic. Described by Andrew Macmillan as no less than ‘one of the most important début collections for a generation’ and hailed by the New York Times for its ‘tensile precision reminiscent of Emily Dickinson’, the collection has sold strongly, a rare feat for poetry, unless the author attended a famous stage school or featured on a Beyonce album. What is it that has made for such a successful debut? The most obvious answer is the most convincing: the poetry. Several of the poems in Night Sky are written with a grace and cadence beyond the reach of mere mortals. 'Telemachus' spreads its wings confidently:

Like any good son, I pull my father out
of the water, drag him by his hair

through the white sand, his knuckles carving a trail
the waves rush in to erase.

The son turns his father over to reveal a bullet in his back and seals his father's lips with his own, so he can 'begin/the faithful work of drowning.' The trail left by his father's hands is washed away by the sea, just as the fragments of Vuong's past were lost when he and his family emigrated from Vietnam to America and when Vuong's mother swapped the name given to him by his father (Vinh Quoc) for the decidedly poetic Ocean.

Vuong's father is perhaps the most confusing figure in Night Sky. In 'My Father Writes From Prison' Vuong's father begins by telling Vuong he misses him (in Vietnamese) before confessing to either murdering, or almost murdering, a child: 'my hands that pressed the 9mm to the boy's / twitching cheek I was 22 the chamber / empty.’ The next time we see Vuong's father is two poems later, in the elaborately titled 'In Newport I Watch My Father Lay His Cheek To A Beached Dolphin's Wet Back': 'His knees sunk/ in ink-black mud, he guides/a ribbon of water to the pulsiing/ blowhole.’

This tender image clashes with an earlier line where Vuong recalls his father chasing his mother with a hammer. Vuong's father is an unpredictable, abusive man but his actions are not presented to be judged, he is never overtly condemned; although Night Sky is dedicated to Vuong's mother his father is included in the dedication in brackets, as if to indicate a door left open for redemption.

His father's violence leaves a trace in the savage physicality with which Vuong sings the body electric; sex in Night Sky is almost always cut with threat, lines like 'this is how we loved: a knife on the tongue turning /into a tongue' and 'the zipper a thin scream/ where you plant your mouth' lead Vuong to the inevitable conclusion: 'I just don't know/ how to love a man/ gently.’ For Vuong sex seems more an escape than a channel to express affection, none of his lovers have a name, their appearances are never described, there is rarely an emotional exchange. Vuong's physicality recalls Thom Gunn:

Lie back. Within a minute I will stow
Your greedy mouth, but will not yet to grips.
There is a space between the breast and lips.'
And a space between the thighs and head,
[from 'Carnal Knowledge']

and one of Gunn's disciples, the aforementioned Andrew Macmillan:

tangling in the unpierced flesh of one another
grappling with the shifting question of each other’s bodies
until the morning breaks across them and still their strength
no soft parts of stomachs no inch of them hung loose
[from 'Jacob and the Angel']

But in Vuong's poetry the physical is laced with danger, in 'Homewrecker' two boys dance in their mother's white dresses, drink vodka and share an erotic afternoon in the attic:

      when our lips touched the day closed
into a coffin. In the museum of the heart

there are two headless people building a burning house.
There was always a shotgun above

the fireplace

The violence of the imagery is overwhelming, the boys' experience is passionate and uncomfortable, Vuong's physicality stems from a dark place, it is not celebratory but defiant. Sex is a way out, but a dangerous one, hence the night sky's exit wounds.

Despite the quality of much of Night Sky there are moments which feel repetitive, it does sometimes seem as if Vuong lives in a permanent state of despair. 'Thanksgiving 2006' breathes the recycled air of a creative writing workshop:

Brooklyn's too cold tonight

& all my friends are three years away.

My mother said I could be anything

I wanted – but I chose to live.

The feelings explored in the poem are the same as those featured in most of the other poems in Night Sky, with the exception that they are not explored in such an original or provocative way. The poem concludes: 'I am ready to be every animal/you leave behind.' but it remains unclear why Vuong feels the need to be an animal or why the animal must be left behind. The intensity and richness of Vuong's life experience mean he is unlikely to sound like a cloned sheep produced by a creative writing school, but there are moments in Night Sky that seem to betray long years spent in the classroom being told what to do, and these are the weakest moments of the collection.

By contrast the high points are very high indeed. 'Someday I'll Love Ocean Vuong' is a beautiful poem written with the grace of an angel:

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.

The poem drips with an elegance and depth of feeling which could drown an ocean. I imagine the poem will still be read a long time after the dust settles on whatever Vuong and his contemporaries are called. Night Sky With Exit Wounds is a debut brimming with promise which guides the reader delicately from the desolate to the divine. It is well worthy of its admirers and will hopefully gain more and more.