The speaker of most poems throughout Night Sky with Exit Wounds is consistent, and this speaker's voice and personal history seem to be highly parallel with—if not exactly the same as—those of Ocean Vuong. The speaker is the child of a mother who is mixed-race, born to an American soldier and a Vietnamese farmgirl, and who works in an American nail salon. The speaker's father, on the other hand, served time in a Vietnamese prison, and he is also depicted in various scenes throughout the collection as having violently abused his wife and having emotionally scarred the speaker. The speaker is at first nervous and reticent, able to understand himself only through the contexts provided by the Vietnam War, his parent's love for each other, and their experiences immigrating to the United States, but throughout the collection, the speaker comes to deeper understandings about himself and his body's power to effect change in the world and in others. Importantly, part of the speaker's process for doing so comes out of comparisons—both explicit and implicit—between himself and significant figures from mythology and history, such as Eurydice, Telemachus, and Jackie Kennedy.
The Speaker's/Ocean's Mother
The speaker's mother, named Lan (as revealed in “My Father Writes from Prison”) appears in many poems throughout the collection. She is mixed-race, fathered by an American soldier and mothered by a “Vietnamese farmgirl.” Towards the beginning of the collection, she is primarily noted as a figure who is engaged in a highly passionate and loving relationship with the father, serving as his companion in their shared migration from Vietnam to America across the Pacific Ocean. Also early in the collection, however, and moving towards the later poems in the collection, she is depicted as a victim of the father’s physical and emotional abuse. She is loved unconditionally by the speaker (as in “Notebook Fragments”) and appreciated for her role in raising the speaker (e.g., teaching him how to write at the nail salon where she works in “The Gift”).
The Speaker's/Ocean's Father
The speaker's relationship with his father is highly fraught. In early poems in Night Sky with Exit Wounds, he is depicted as a complement to the mother, a lover and husband who is concerned with her and the speaker’s well-being. At the same time, however, the speaker presents the father as someone who is broken by past violence (see “My Father Writes from Prison”) and who takes this out on his wife both physically and emotionally. Based on the harm that the father has inflicted on both the speaker and his mother, the speaker fears his father. At the same time, however, poems like “Telemachus” and “Deto(nation)” reveal that the speaker is also unable to entirely let his estranged father go. The speaker notes his resemblance to his father, among other things, and finds the light shed on his father’s actions painful to deal with. At the end of “Deto(nation),” where the speaker walks towards his father in the night, as well as in “Someday I’ll Love Ocean Vuong,” then, the speaker seems to be resigned to gradually forgetting the truth of his father, rather than genuinely willing him out of his life: “Your father is only your father / until one of you forgets.” This, too, is painful for the speaker, but seems to be a necessity or inevitability.
The Speaker's/Ocean's Grandmother
The speaker's grandmother takes center stage in just a couple of poems. In both “Self Portrait as Exit Wounds” and “Notebook Fragments,” she is presented in the context of her relationship with the American soldier—evidence of the speaker’s own roots in war, violence, and imperialist sentiment. At the same time, however, “Notebook Fragments” also presents the grandmother as a figure of wisdom—offering valuable recollections of the violence of the Vietnam War, speaking folk sayings that stand out to the speaker, and making semi-philosophical commentary on the nature of god. This transition in the grandmother from the collection’s beginning to its end mirrors the speaker’s own development from someone whose understandings are rooted in the past to one whose focus is on the complexity created in the present by several tensions that rest in the body. Moreover, this development into a wise, loved figure also mirrors Ocean Vuong’s own grandmother’s role in raising him.
The Pairs of Lovers
Throughout Night Sky with Exit Wounds, various pairs of lovers are centered by the speaker. Whether these lovers are fictional (such as the lovers in “Aubade with Burning City”), real (like Jackie and John Kennedy or the men in “Seventh Circle of Earth”), or mythological (such as Orpheus and Eurydice), the speaker inserts himself into and inhabits various relationships in his process of understanding himself as a lover and agent. In the process, many thematic elements important to the collection as a whole—the sacrifices that lovers must make, what relationships are considered valuable or appropriate by a certain culture, and what elements of love are universal—are revealed.
If the pairs of lovers throughout the collection can be said to teach the speaker the theory of love, the various men who the speaker sees throughout the collection might be said to teach him how love works in practice. By coming to an understanding of how these men bring him pain, bring him pleasure, force him to confront his race, and bring him peace, the speaker learns to understand his own body as something that binds together both violence and tenderness. The pairs of lovers and the men throughout the collection are two complementary pieces that center the role of the speaker’s body and voice in the collection in contending with forces both past and present, large and small, real and imagined.
Night Sky with Exit Wounds Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Night Sky with Exit Wounds is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.