Ocean Vuong’s stunning debut collection Night Sky With Exit Wounds meditates on belonging and exile, fathers and sons, the body of language and the language of the body, violence and desire. And while these topics may be familiar areas for the poet to explore, Vuong’s poems defamiliarize the familiar, inviting the reader to discover what it’s like to navigate relentless newness. His poems are events: beautifully sad, violently sexy, and politically poignant.
Take the familiar topos of the body—something that we all “know,” but also the source of constant mystery and discovery. Vuong begins his book with a poem that invokes liminality, betweeness—“Threshold”—that itself begins with the body: “In the body, where everything has a price, / I was a beggar.” The body here welcomes commerce, desire, risk, reward—all concerns of later poems. In “Immigrant Haibun,” the speaker wonders, “Maybe the body is the only question an answer can’t extinguish,” and we realize that the known world gives us access to the persistent unknown. Then, in “Headfirst,” the body is violence: “the body is a blade that sharpens / by cutting.” “Into the Breach,” one of Vuong’s many poems exploring queer desire and sex, frames the body as refuge:
The body was made soft
to keep us
But the destruction of queer bodies (queer bodies in love)—specifically the 2011 murder of Michael Humphrey and Clayton Capshaw by immolation in their Dallas home in 2011—becomes the scaffolding upon which the haunting “Seventh Circle of Earth” is built. The body, then, is a site of desire, knowing, and loss in “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous”:
For hunger is to give
the body what it knows
it cannot keep.
Then, in “Eurydice,” one of several poems that invokes and queers the classical tradition, the disillusioned speaker imagines the body as incorporeal: “I thought love was real / & the body imaginary. When you think that Vuong’s magic in reimagining the familiar is exhausted, he changes his spell more.
My favorite poems that explore the body occur near the end of the collection. In “Torso of Air,” Vuong invites the reader to imagine longed-for happiness, but before happiness can be imagined, he offers this necessary-to-the-poem supposition:
Suppose you do change your life.
& the body is more than
a portion of night—sealed
The pain, though, associated “with bruises” becomes a wish for a violent blessing in “Prayer for the Newly Damned”:
his need to know
how pain blesses the body back
to its sinner.
But, finally, the grand coda of meditating on the body—in a book that’s filled with the questioning and rejection that accompanies exile—is one of family, affection, and an embrace of a fraught, broken world that insists on loss and inspires grief. “Someday I’ll Love Ocean Vuong” gives us two thoughts on the body:
The most beautiful part
of your body is wherever
your mother’s shadow falls.
The most beautiful part of your body
is where it’s headed. & remember,
loneliness is still time spent
with the world.
The body carries with it the difficult memories, but—as these few lines attest—the body is beautiful and our physical hope for more.
Parts of the body—tongues, teeth, eyes, feet, knees, backs, heads, hands, blood—all get frequent mention in Vuong’s poems. The language of the body becomes the body of the poem. We see the poet weave together his concerns with bodies, beauty, and language here, in “The Gift”:
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
on her cheek.
The body is language, language the body, and both are trying to learn, to make the unfamiliar more familiar, to navigate newness for survival. Vuong reminds of the image of hair as language again in the end of his book. But this time—after the long journey of the book—and in a poem that alludes to fathers and sons and exile and homecoming, the hair-letter of the body in “The Gift” becomes more or perhaps the ruins of “more”:
All that remains of the sentence
is a line
of black hair stranded
at my feet.
Ruin—and how to cope with it—is the poet’s terrain as well. Vuong relates violence, the ruined body, and poet’s relationship to language in “Logophobia,” which suggests the power of words to be feared:
I drill the ink
into a period.
The deepest hole,
where the bullet,
my father’s back,
the way words
of this wide
For Vuong language and the body are the sites for making, and language itself and the body itself are both beyond the subjects of poems, they are poems themselves. Through Night Sky With Exit Wounds, we are reminded of how violent we insist on being, but also how resilient we can be when we make, do, and (try to, at least) love.
Douglas Ray is author of He Will Laugh, a collection of poems, and editor of The Queer South: LGBTQ Writers on the American South, which was a finalist for Lambda Literary Award. He earned his BA in classics and English and his MFA in creative writing from The University of Mississippi. He teaches English at Western Reserve Academy, a boarding school in Hudson, Ohio.