Night Sky with Exit Wounds

Night Sky with Exit Wounds Ocean Vuong and the Influence of Religion

Though many of the poems in Night Sky with Exit Wounds make allusions to Western religious traditions, Buddhism has been a consistent influence in Ocean Vuong's life from the time he was a child. In interviews, Vuong has stated that the Buddhism of his parents was primarily based in actions and rituals because of their illiteracy: "Every day before school, my mother would get me to the altar, and we would start to name the roll call, the people in our family, and try to bless them and think about them and tend to them and to ourselves. And so spirituality began with care rooted in physical bodies. It didn’t extend beyond the household. There was no mythical presence to it; it was almost like this abracadabra that we did before we stepped out of the house, into the rest of the world and, thereby, the rest of America." One sees easily against such a backdrop how Vuong developed his poetic fascinations with the physical body, the meeting of reality and mythology, and Americanness as distinct from the immigrant experience.

At the same time, however, Vuong has also brought public attention to his upbringing in a primarily Black and Brown neighborhood in Hartford, CT—within which he was also exposed to Baptist traditions through contact with his friends: "I would end up attending, throughout my childhood, hundreds of church services in the Baptist church. And the preacher kept talking about Noah’s Ark, and I was so infatuated. I think it embedded into my psyche in really everything that I do, even to this day. What an incredible mythos to work and live by, which is that when the apocalypse comes, what will you put into the vessel for the future?" The religious tilt in Vuong's poetry is thus not just rooted in his own encounters with his own family's religion, but also in the various religious experiences he was exposed to growing up. What comes through in his poetry, then, is not simply the imagery of one or two religious traditions, but rather a proclivity towards exploring the large-scale cosmic questions that many religions also seek to explore. To this very end, Vuong himself has said, "It’s most interesting to me when the Buddhist principles start to intersect with American working-class and highly Catholic and Christian thinking of sin, abstinence, and purity—these get hypercharged in the space of the lyric poem." One also sees here how Vuong's exploration of religion is inherently tied to his excavation of American values and life.

Moreover, Vuong's poetry is influenced by an eclectic mix of religions not just in its content, but also in the practice of its writing. Speaking of how he embodies Buddhist principles in his creative process, Vuong primarily focused on the technical deployment of self-isolation:

For me, as a Buddhist, that tradition of “isolation as work” rings true, and that correlates with the poem being my eventual correspondence with the rest of the world—that is, in the rare chance the poem is strong enough to achieve itself. I wrote most of Night Sky alone in an overheated apartment in New York in my pajamas with no promise that anyone would care. For the monks, there was a community, a sangha, that sent them off and then received them with open arms, regardless of their efforts. For the poet there is no such promise, there is no one waiting for us.

Still, that monastic model was there for me, and I feel that a certain isolation is necessary for my work. How could I go deeper into my own vulnerability if I were to perpetually exist in a public space, if I had to perform (as we all must do, to some extent) in order to participate in society? So this charged isolation was the first step, and it is what I thought I was supposed to do.

The experience of the poet as isolated from society in the process of creation also sheds light on Vuong's fascination with the connection between the individual and the collective, specifically as precipitated by the body and the body's creation of lyric poetry. Thus, by understanding the influences of various religions on Ocean Vuong's life and creative process, one can also come to a better understanding of his poetic craft and the larger questions that interest him in his work.