Night Sky with Exit Wounds is the debut full-length poetry collection by Vietnamese-American author Ocean Vuong. Vuong initially wrote the poems in the collection and assembled them for an open contest that claimed each rejection would be personalized. Since Vuong thought that such a rejection would provide him with valuable information regarding next steps and meaningful advice on how to advance his writing, he submitted the poems to the contest with low expectations. Instead, what Vuong received was an offer for the work to be published, and the collection was published by Copper Canyon Press in 2016.
The collection itself is an exploration of the uncanny closeness between life and death, trauma and rebirth, nationhood and exile, pleasure and pain, parents and children, and love and violence. Moreover, as critics like Michiko Kakutani and Christopher R. Vaughan have noted, Night Sky With Exit Wounds is a collection that locates the intersection of all these tensions and conflicts in the body, which mutates throughout the collection to fill a variety of roles. In one poem, the body is fragile, but in the next, it is a testament to the stubborn truth of simply living despite hardship. As Ocean Vuong navigates the politics and emotions of this changing body—from an observer and supplicant to an agent that is capable of loving others, harming them, and creating new things, so too does he trace the way that language is protean. After all, as Claire Schwartz writes, "language lives in the body, which never wholly empties." As the body changes throughout the collection, so too does Vuong's language as he revisits events both historical and personal, turning them over like an object in the hands to view it from all sides.
That the language of Night Sky with Exit Wounds is strange and neat, able to fit itself to a variety of situations, is one of Vuong's most stunning accomplishments. It is what allows him to situate himself on September 11th in one poem ("Untitled"), to be Jackie Kennedy in another ("Of Thee I Sing"), and to recount the seemingly scattered yet eerily interlinked machinations of his mind ("Notebook Fragments"), all with a singular and cohesive voice. The Vietnam War, interpersonal sexual encounters, and the tensions and violences within a family are all seamlessly linked by the languages of loss, craving, and passion. Of this unique tendency of his poetry—that is, its unique system of relations—Vuong himself has said, "when we remove an object or idea from the relative nature of language, we can see how stunning it really is all by itself, naked and fully present; we can see, at last, that an elephant is big only when it’s next to something small."
After its publication, the collection found a great deal of commercial success—which continues to this day—as well as a chorus of critical voices in praise of Vuong's craft and choice of subject matter. It received the T.S. Eliot Prize in 2017, and it has been translated or is forthcoming in over 10 languages.