Night Sky with Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong review – migration, America and Vietnam

Borders and identities blur in this hotly tipped collection from a young poet who moved to the US as a child

It is tempting to read Ocean Vuong’s poetry with his life story in mind. Glimpses of it appear throughout his Forward prize-nominated debut collection, Night Sky with Exit Wounds: Vuong was born near Saigon in 1988 and at the age of two, after a year in a refugee camp, he emigrated to Hartford, Connecticut with six members of his family. Several poems resurrect violence from before the poet’s birth, in particular the end of the Vietnam war with the fall of Saigon in 1975. Complex figures, displaced by war, haunt the book: an absent, tormented father and a beloved mother. Vuong’s intimate lyrical voice, his precise, stark imagery and engagement with gay sexuality construct a familiar story of loss, as well as the immigrant’s precarious transnational identity. But pointing to the biography alongside Vuong’s stellar rise – from the first literate person in his family to a lauded, prize-winning poet – risks detracting from the book’s literary and political elements. Balancing memory and silence with erudition, Vuong’s poetry resists being so easily pinned down.

Poetry as song, originating in lyric, preoccupies the book’s opening poem “Threshold”. The father’s singing in the shower – and a son’s surreptitious listening – form an invocation for the poet.

I watched through the keyhole, not

the man showering, but the rain

falling through him: guitar strings snapping

over his globed shoulders.

He was singing, which is why

I remember it. His voice –

it filled me to the core

like a skeleton.

The poem crosses several thresholds – a relationship between father and son, especially – and is suspended between two voices: one’s own and another animated by a shared longing. For the poet, “the cost / of entering a song” is to “lose your way back”. Vuong invokes the myth of the lyric poet Orpheus and is beguiled by a father whose guitar strings (a lyre of sorts) break over the body like water. Along the same mythical line, he writes in “Eurydice”: “It’s not / about the light – but how dark / it makes you depending / on where you stand.” Vuong’s bold use of mythology defamiliarises; he inhabits these tales in ways that are surprising and instructive. Myth becomes a way to enter the self but also the frame of language. Imagining himself as Eurydice in “Notebook Fragments”, he wryly notes, “If Orpheus were a woman I wouldn’t be stuck down here.”

Vuong’s debut collection.
Vuong’s debut collection. Photograph: PR

Counterbalancing father and son elsewhere are two poems, “Telemachus” and “Odysseus Redux”, that draw again from myth, specifically the aftermath of the Trojan war in Homer’s Odyssey.

Like any good son, I pull my father out

of the water, drag him by his hair

through white sand, his knuckles

carving a trail

the waves rush in to erase.

The image of the drowned father, dutifully rescued by the son, is later paired with the returning father who, unlike the epic hero, fails to put his house in order. Vuong’s Odysseus is a phantom mistaken by the son for his own reflection, “my own face, the mirror, / its cracking, the crickets, every syllable / spilling through.” But these are not typical rewritings of classical myth, nor are they personal narratives overlaid onto mythical patterns, calibrated for resonance. Vuong’s language returns myth to its inception: a desire to carry the labour of human voices across time and space without losing anything.

America, too, appears as fated mythic shadow of Troy and Rome. In a poem about the 11 September attacks titled after Rothko’s 1952 painting Untitled (Blue, Green, and Brown), the canvas’s portentous sky smokes blue black above a horizontal plane of colour: “They say the sky is blue / but I know it’s black seen through too much distance.” Destruction that lies decades ahead is anticipated by the cold window of the painting’s surface. Similarly, Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas” is undercut with incongruous scenes of American violence in the chilling poem “Aubade with Burning City”. “Of Thee I Sing” takes its title from the patriotic song “America the Beautiful”, but its dissonant lines are severed down the page in the voice of Jackie Kennedy after her husband’s assassination. The poem splits between irreconcilable loyalty to nation and disbelieving grief: “I love my country. / I pretend nothing is wrong.” For Vuong, the present occurs where past and future are locked together by rupture. It is no wonder that elsewhere in the book a mother’s voice warns her son “When they ask you / where you’re from” tell them “the body is a blade that sharpens / by cutting”.

“Immigrant Haibun” relies on a prose form of haiku originated by Matsuo Basho but employed in English by US poets such as John Ashbery and James Merrill. The haibun is imagistic and often records travels abroad, infusing it in the hands of western writers with a degree of forced exoticism. Vuong’s reversal of the haibun via the arriving immigrant turns this on its head. It also illustrates the central conceits of the book: the dark sky imbued with inscrutable meaning, the city smouldering, the ship and its family romance dashed on the rocks, and the expansive ocean between continents after which Vuong’s mother renamed him. Night Sky with Exit Wounds resists resolution, suggesting ultimately that “maybe the body is the only question an answer can’t extinguish”. Vuong’s poems, written with intelligence and tenderness, offer new spaces for becoming, where the self questions its borders, remakes itself at the threshold of language.

Eidolon by Sandeep Parmar is published by Shearsman.

Night Sky with Exit Wounds is published by Cape Poetry. To order a copy for £8.50 (RRP £10) go to or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.

Sandeep Parmar

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong review – portrait of the artist as a teenager
A Vietnamese-American poet’s debut mines his extraordinary family story with passion and beauty

Tessa Hadley

14, Jun, 2019 @6:29 AM

Article image
Night Sky with Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong review – violence, delicacy and timeless imagery
The poet’s debut reveals a master of juxtaposition willing to tell difficult stories with courage

Kate Kellaway

09, May, 2017 @8:00 AM

Article image
Fresh voices: 50 writers you should read now
Which debut novel should you reach for this spring? Here’s our guide to the most exciting voices in fiction, politics, SF, graphic novels and more

31, Mar, 2018 @7:00 AM

Article image
Generation next: the rise – and rise – of the new poets
With soaring sales and a younger, broader audience, poetry is on a high. What is behind the boom? Plus the fresh voices to read now

Sarah Crown

16, Feb, 2019 @9:00 AM

Article image
Why the TS Eliot prize shortlist hails a return to the status quo
This year’s lineup may be deserving, but with just one collection by a BAME poet in an exceptionally strong year for poets of colour, it also seems naive

Sandeep Parmar

20, Oct, 2017 @11:50 AM

Article image
Ocean Vuong: ‘As a child I would ask: What’s napalm?’
How did a Vietnamese refugee come to write what many are hailing as the great American novel?

Emma Brockes

09, Jun, 2019 @7:00 AM

Article image
War baby: the amazing story of Ocean Vuong, former refugee and prize-winning poet
His grandfather was a US soldier who fell in love with a Vietnamese farm girl. But then Saigon fell and the family was blown apart. Ocean Vuong poured it all into Night Sky With Exit Wounds, winning him a Forward prize – and comparisons with Emily Dickinson

Claire Armitstead

03, Oct, 2017 @5:29 PM

Article image
$625,000 'genius grants' go to Ocean Vuong and six other writers
The MacArthur Foundation honours, which encourage winners to ‘continue to innovate’, also won by Valeria Luiselli, Lynda Berry and Emily Wilson

Alison Flood

25, Sep, 2019 @2:04 PM

Article image
Fatima Bhutto: ‘David Foster Wallace on David Lynch is pretty funny’
The novelist on admiring Maggie Nelson and Rachel Kushner, and being irritated by William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury

Fatima Bhutto

26, Apr, 2019 @8:59 AM

Article image
Ocean Vuong: ‘I was addicted to everything you could crush into a white powder’
The poet and novelist’s latest collection is his first book to be published since the death of his mother. He talks about loss, addiction and performing literary drag

Lisa Allardice

02, Apr, 2022 @8:00 AM