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

Ocean Vuong was born on a rice farm outside Saigon, in 1988, and spent a year in a refugee camp in the Philippines before moving, aged two, to Hartford, Connecticut. He was mentored by the poet and novelist Ben Lerner and has said that without Lerner, he would never have believed it possible he could become a poet or that his talent could travel. Vuong’s mother, who works in a nail salon, was determined her son become the first literate member of their family. Among the most moving poems in this debut (feted in the US and already selling in unusual quantities here) is The Gift. “ABC” were the only letters his beloved mother knew: “But I can see the fourth letter:/a strand of black hair – unraveled/from the alphabet/&written/on her cheek.” Even then, Vuong was, it seems, able tenderly to decipher more than he had been told to learn.

About his father, who dominates this collection, the story is murkier. The second poem, Telemachus, is at once lyrical and horrific. It describes turning his father’s corpse over in the sea and seeing a gun wound in his back. It ends: “The face/not mine – but one I will wear/to kiss all my lovers good-night:/the way I seal my father’s lips/with my own & begin/the faithful work of drowning.” Disentangling traumatic memory from myth is no easy task. As one reads on, it becomes evident that the collection is not so much about drowning as about the precarious work of resurfacing.

The poetry is a conduit for a life in which violence and delicacy collide. Individual lines sometimes seem precious, pretentious or obscure but it seems footling to be detained by detail. It is the frequency on which these poems exist that matters, their urgency. As I read, I became curious about Vuong and was pleased to find him reading on YouTube (Ocean Vuong @ the TCA). His delivery is uncommon: soft, authoritative and wistful. Each word is given space, as if there were a full stop after it, as if allowing for an echo. Once heard, this is a voice that does not leave you, which is fitting given that this poetry is inspired by Vietnamese oral tradition. It is filled with timeless images: night, stars, petals, fire and the body (body-as-book).

Vuong’s gay love poems are especially powerful and fraught. Because It’s Summer is a poem about sex as grounding, flight and atonement:

“you say thank you thank you thank you
because you haven’t learned the purpose
of forgive me because that’s what you say
when a stranger steps out of summer
& offers you another hour to live”

He is a master of juxtaposition. In Aubade with Burning City, he ironically interlaces Irving Berlin’s White Christmas with the 1975 collapse of Saigon:

“Outside, a soldier spits out/his cigarette as footsteps fill the square like stones/fallen from the sky. May/all your Christmases be white.”

The sentimental impossibility of Berlin’s lines is rebuked by accompanying reality.

I am not sure why a poem about 9/11 should be named after a Rothko painting but the more I read it, the more I found to admire. It has Vuong’s characteristic sense of urgency combined with delicacy and although I incompletely understand it – the mocking birds continue to mock me – I like the fragility, resilience and the sense that the stories that need telling are hardest to tell – a difficulty Ocean Vuong is courageously minded to overcome.

Untitled (Blue, Green, and Brown): oil on canvas: Mark Rothko: 1952

The TV said the planes have hit the buildings.
& I said Yes because you asked me
to stay. Maybe we pray on our knees because god
only listens when we’re this close
to the devil. There is so much I want to tell you.
How my greatest accolade was to walk
across the Brooklyn Bridge
& not think of flight. How we live like water: wetting
a new tongue with no telling
what we’ve been through. They say the sky is blue
but I know it’s black seen through too much distance.
You will always remember what you were doing
when it hurts the most. There is so much
I need to tell you – but I only earned
one life. & I took nothing. Nothing. Like a pair of teeth
at the end. The TV kept saying The planes
The planes...& I stood waiting in the room
made of broken mockingbirds. Their wings throbbing
into four blurred walls. & you were there.
You were the window.

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

Contributor

Kate Kellaway

The GuardianTramp

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