Award-winning, 2016-published Night Sky With Exit Wounds is a beautiful collection of often startling poems by Vietnamese-born, American-raised refugee Ocean Vuong. Spanning war, the fall of Saigon, gay love, families and much more, the poems may traverse sometimes familiar ground, but they offer fresh perspectives using language that sparkles as if its very words were diamonds.
We at Travelfish are prolific readers, but we often fall down when it comes to staying abreast of what’s happening in the poetry world. We blame memories of horrible effort required in high school to make sense of stuff from the distant past, but this is really, truly no excuse. If you’re like us, picking up a collection like Night Sky With Exit Wounds is an easy and painless way to reenter this corner of the literary world. (As is, incidentally, Mai Der Vang’s Afterland.)
To continue with our metaphor—trust us, nothing so awkward appears in Vuong’s work—these poems are exquisite jewels. Or crystallised essences of emotions, surprising and somehow aptly rendered.
In this Guardian profile, Vuong says that he was “a terrible student” at a rough school where “being a slight, queer, yellow boy, it was very easy to be picked on”. He learned to read aged 11 and suspects that dyslexia runs in his family, according to the piece. “I think perhaps the disability helped me a bit, because I write very slowly and see words as objects. I’m always trying to look for words inside words. It’s so beautiful to me that the word laughter is inside slaughter,” he’s quoted as saying. This precision, with each word seemingly handled very carefully as it was placed on a page, between others equally carefully selected, is striking.
These are poems to sit with, allowing the feelings Vuong conveys to percolate to the surface and the evocative images to shimmer to their best advantage.
Consider “Threshold”, the first poem:
“On my knees,
I watched, through the keyhole, not the man showering but the rain falling through him; guitar strings snapping over his globed shoulders.”
“The dress petaling off him like the skin of an apple.”
Or Thanksgiving 2006:
“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.”
One of our immediate favourites was Notebook Fragments, a collection of disparate snippets, just as the title suggests:
“Even sweetness can scratch the throat, so stir the sugar well.—Grandma
An American soldier fucked a Vietnamese farmgirl. Thus my mother exists. Thus I exist. Thus no bombs = no family = no me. / Yikes.”
A note on whether to go e-reader or paper: We could not get our Kindle to render the text small enough to accurately reflect the line settings printed on paper, so shallow indents were shown where line breaks should have been. If you have the time to wait for it, we’d suggest buying the hard copy.
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