A Link Round Up for Ocean Vuong’s “Night Sky With Exit Wounds”
I’ve seen Ocean Vuong’s name around a lot (he’s a recipient of the Whiting Award) but never let it sink in. And then I received Night Sky With Exit Wounds as a Christmas gift. I’ve been dabbling in it, and relishing it, since then.
I figure there might yet be a few other people out there in the world who, like me, need a little push in the right direction, the direction that leads to this poetry. I haven’t even read enough of his work, or read it well enough, to write a review, but how about a hearty recommendation? That I can do.
(And there are lots of good reviews out there already, like at Queen Mobs, Harvard Review Online, and more, such as the NYTimes, linked up at LitHub. This article at the New Yorker is very interesting.)
I said I’ve “been dabbling in” Night Sky With Exit Wounds because it’s a great book for dabbling. I’m not reading it academically, or quickly. It seems better suited to that thing where you read one poem a day, out loud.
Published in 2016 by Copper Canyon Press, it’s unassuming in its shape—80ish pages, 3 sections, 36 mostly familiar-looking poems. The publisher’s description traces the subject matter:
“romance, family, memory, grief, war, and melancholia. None of these he allows to overwhelm his spirit or his poems, which demonstrate … that a gentle palm on a chest can calm the fiercest hungers.”
That’s great jacket copy (as is the blurb from Li-Young Lee, who says in part that Ocean Vuong “tries to make sense of human suffering by allowing his personal suffering to connect him to every other fallen, broken, wounded member of our world”), but I don’t know if any of it makes it clear how, like, calmly—or well—the poems are written. How self-assured they are, even as they turn over grief, war, melancholia and study those things like a smooth rock.
Here’s the first quiet lines of “Queen Under the Hill”:
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. My fingers
sliding the slimy gums. Slick lips. Snout. Not
a piano—but a mare
There’s imagination and abstraction like that tied up in each poem, but what I respond to most is how easy it is to attach all of it to something real, whether the reality is my own experience or just language—strings of words—that I understand at first blush. This happens, for instance, in “Thanksgiving 2016,” which begins “Brooklyn’s too cold tonight” and ends “I am ready to be every animal / you leave behind.”
You can find more links to Ocean Vuong’s poems here, at oceanvuong.com/poems.