“I didn’t know the cost / of entering a song — was to lose / your way back. / So I entered. So I lost. / I lost it all with my eyes / wide open.”
In this quote from "Threshold," the speaker implies that his journey into song—both the literal song of his father through the door and the figurative song of his own poetry—is all-consuming and irrevocable. On an even deeper and more significant level, especially considering the title, is how this line frames both the body and the page as different kind of thresholds. By entering the song of his father with his body situated at the threshold of the door, the speaker is pulled into an interior space, heavy with the weight of the past and with current trauma, that he finds impossible to escape. On a figurative level, then, the page represents the threshold between the lived, exterior experiences of the speaker and the interior recollections, meditations, and thoughts that take shape in poetry. By suggesting that he enters this poem on the page and loses his links to the exterior world, the speaker also provides us with a commitment to write more poetry (i.e., the collection).
“There’s a lighthouse / some / nights you are the lighthouse / some nights the sea / what this means is that I / don’t know / desire other than the need / to be shattered & rebuilt”
In this quote from "My Father Writes from Prison," the speaker—assuming the persona of his father—asserts that sometimes he feels that his mother is the person who most tormented his father, as well as the person who supported him most. This is significant because it calls our attention to the father's own troubled past and decision to take out his anger on the speaker's mother, painting him as a man who has lost control and knows only the desire to be undone and remade, time and time again. Lines like these and others in the collection humanize the speaker's father and allow readers to better understand why the speaker himself has such conflicted feelings regarding his father.
"this is how we loved: a knife on the tongue turning / into a tongue.”
In this line, the speaker recalls the way that his encounters with a past love were rapturous, but also held the potential to transform their lives and fill them with violence and ruin. This is an important realization for the speaker, since it allows him to understand and reframe his own love (which, in being homosexual, might be viewed negatively) as something triumphant, something by which an instrument of death and violence (evocative not only of societal rejection but also the threat of literal violence that gay people may face in America) becomes transfigured into something that brings pleasure. Of course, this also links to the collection's broader idea that the body itself, especially when engaged in sexual acts or in loving relationships, often straddles the boundary between violence and tenderness, pain and pleasure.
“Look how happy we are / to be no one / & still // American.”
In this quote, the speaker, assuming the persona of one member of a gay couple killed in an arson, speaks to his lover as they burn and suggests that they are happy. While this would seem paradoxical, it makes sense when contextualized by the fact that the speaker takes such a state to be the lived truth of gay men in many parts of America—because gay men may be considered unacceptable by "traditional" morals that undergird conservative American politics, they are only able to fit into the schema of American life by erasing themselves. It is only in being "no one" that they are able to be both their true selves and "American"—separated from the rest of the quote by a stanza break and section mark to show just how distant these lovers are from truly fitting into the American "ideal." As such, this quote is important because it underscores the limitations of American idealism and unmasks patriotism and similar American fictions (like the American Dream) as hollow and empty.
“Silly me. I thought love was real / & the body imaginary.”
In this quote, the speaker implies that, while he once thought love real and the conception of "the body" to be fictional, he has since realized that the opposite is true. In doing so, the speaker importantly places the body once again at the center of his lived experiences. The idea of "love" as created, upheld, and romanticized by the literary imagination is revealed throughout the collection to be far more complex in practice than one might think. What is real, then, is the complex capacity of the body to both please others in love and also be harmed in love, a duality which causes the speaker to feel conflicted, ambivalent, or unsure about many of the topics covered in the collection.
“what becomes of the shepherd / when the sheep are cannibals?”
In this question, the speaker addresses god and asks what his role as a shepherd is in a world where his sheep (i.e., humans) turn on each other like cannibals and commit violence against each other. By this point in the collection, the speaker is already questioning his own role in both small-scale and large-scale events. For example, he spends much of the poem apologizing for his own witnessing and enjoyment of the violent confrontation in front of him, but he is also learning to understand for himself how god can be behind both grace (in the form of the finger keeping the man's throat open) and evil (in the form of the blade against the neck). This quote, then, is significant because it seeks to similarly the small scale or individual with the large scale or cosmic. By even asking what role there is for god when humans act a certain way, the speaker suggests not only that institutionalized religion might not be as powerful as once thought, but also that man may even be as powerful as god in certain instances. In many ways, by coming to understand his own body's agency by turning towards others, myth, and his own past, the speaker is similarly finding a god-like power within himself throughout the collection.
"To even write father / is to carve a portion of the day / out of a bomb-bright page."
In this quote, the speaker suggests that confronting the memory of his father in writing is difficult. He says that, not only is it possible that doing so may take a "portion of the day," but he also suggests that the page is "bomb-bright" for the light it sheds on the truth of his father's past misdeeds and violence. It is this difficulty and pain in confronting the reality of his father's past that leaves the speaker's attitudes towards his father ambivalent, at best, by the close of the collection.
“Here. That’s all I wanted to be. / I promise.”
In the closing line of "Notebook Fragments," the speaker revises his earlier claim that "A scar's width of warmth on a worn man's neck. / That's all I wanted to be." He also adds yet another promise into the mix (he had earlier promised to stop doing drugs and stop seeing men). This is a particularly poignant and significant combination because it represents the speaker's desire to just be content with the stubborn fact of living, but it is complicated and qualified by a kind of promise that we know has been broken in the past by the speaker. The quote is thus important because it captures yet another important duality within the speaker's mind—a satisfaction with life after years of struggle that simultaneously coexists with the craving for more or the desire to unburden one's self from the pains of the past and present.
"Your father is only your father / until one of you forgets.”
In this quote from "Someday I'll Love Ocean Vuong," the speaker attempts to comfort himself by downplaying his relationship with his father. In suggesting that the only way out of this relationship is forgetting, however, the speaker fails to directly confront the past abuses of his father (as in "Deto(nation)") and seems resolved to let things stay as they are. Also contained within the line, however, is a separate interpretation: perhaps the speaker's father has already forgotten who he is (evocative of the "Do you know who I am, / Ba?" in "Telemachus"), and this quote is not offered in consolation but from a place of further desolation and depression.
“gunfire / is only the sound of people / trying to live a little longer / & failing.”
In this quote, the speaker uses his poetic voice and imagination to recast gunfire as a lively sound, albeit a failed one. This quote is significant because it represents the apotheosis of Vuong's speaker—the ability to accept life and its various aspects (including violence) as contingent upon the body. Without a body trying to live longer, there is no violence. Violence, itself something that is both feared and strangely alluring to the speaker throughout the collection, thus finds justification in life, just as the speaker comes to terms with the weight of the past through the fact of his own life.
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.