This ClassicNote focuses on the poems contained in Ocean Vuong's collection Night Sky with Exit Wounds (2016). In total, the collection is comprised of 35 poems, and it is split into three full sections, as well as a fourth section containing only the collection's first poem, "Threshold." This Note addresses a representative sample of 16 poems at length, but because many of the poems' themes connect, repeat, and intersect in important ways, every poem in the collection will be addressed. Considered as a complete body of work, these poems shed light on Ocean Vuong's preoccupation with the body as both a site of potential and trauma, the weight of past war and abuse that constantly weighs on those affected by these experiences, the interlocking of the mythical and the personal, the conflicting and intersectional identities that LGBTQ+ people of color must straddle in America, the tensions between migration and citizenship, and the ways in which individuals connect to or diverge from their parents. The collection as a whole is a haunting testimony to the violences of history and memory, but also an incantatory performance of trauma and pain that allows the victims of these forces to be seen fully in the light, unforgotten and recognized in writing.
The poems analyzed in this Note are grouped by section, beginning with "Threshold." Like the collection's epigraph from Chinese poet Bei Dao ("The landscape crossed out with a pen / reappears here"), this poem sheds light on the ways that both the body and this literal first poem in the collection are different kinds of thresholds, marking the boundaries between interiority and exteriority, subjective investment and objective witness, and memory and experience. At this introductory stage, the speaker (who remains consistent and highly parallel to Ocean Vuong's self throughout the majority of the collection, only clearly shifting in a few poems) is still a disengaged witness, one who is learning to understand his body by observing and writing about those bodies and people who are close to him (i.e., his father). This search for belonging among the diaspora and trauma of war and migration is carried through in many early poems about the speaker's relationship to his parents like "Telemachus." In poems like "Aubade with Burning City," we see Vuong and his speaker at a high-point of their self-discovery, initiating himself and readers into the knowledge that tragedy and joy coexist in some of the most traumatic moments or historical ruptures (i.e., in that poem, the fall of Saigon in 1975). Towards the end of the first section, the speaker learns to understand the centrality of the body in mediating between extreme pain and pleasure, and he foregrounds these tensions within the body in a series of poems that address his parents' experiences in Vietnam and abroad ("A Little Closer to the Edge," "My Father Writes from Prison"). By the end of the collection's first section in "Self Portrait as Exit Wounds," the speaker is no longer just a witness to the majesty of someone else's body, but rather an active force in himself—someone who is capable of recounting the past but also inheriting its burdens, as well as someone who is both a recipient of and participant in violence. He knows what the Vietnam War and displacement from Vietnam have done to shape his family, but he is also about to inflict pain on others just as the first section closes: "I lower myself between the sights [of a rifle]—& pray / that nothing moves."
Compared to the first section's laser focus on the speaker's parents, the second section of the collection focuses a great deal more on the speaker's own relationships with various men. Rather than trying to understand and interpret the contradictions inherent in his family history as produced by, located in, and received by the body, the speaker here tries to understand his own bodily agency as a lover. At times, he is attempting to understand his role as both an innocent participant in forbidden (i.e., homosexual) love and a knowing violator of the rules that forbid his love ("Homewrecker"). In other moments, he attempts to unpack whether the sacrifices he makes for love and its passion are worth the attendant costs, pains, and violences ("On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous"). Still, in other moments, he reimagines himself as another, learning more about the dualities, sacrifices, and ideologies at work in even the most ideal loving relationships ("Of Thee I Sing"). By the end of the second section, the speaker has once again learned—this time, how his own body and experiences tie together the personal and the universal, both the idiosyncratic details of his own pains and those pains that link us together as a people, nation, or race ("Eurydice," "Untitled").
The third section of the collection is the climactic moment in which the speaker combines the lessons learned from the first two sections. In other words, once the speaker knows how to understand and interpret the past through the body, as well as how to understand and interpret the centrality of his own body in linking personal and collective experiences, the third section sees the speaker attempt to situate himself at the intersection of the past and the present, the local and the global, and the passive and the active. The speaker is the key link whose experiences, memories, and inherited bruises necessarily link to his own broader perceptions of reality, culture, and religion. In "Prayer for the Newly Damned," for example, the speaker confesses to the sin of having witnessed and enjoyed a violent confrontation, climaxing in the speaker's understanding that god's place in this world is perhaps compromised: "what becomes of the shepherd / when the sheep are cannibals?" In poems like "Deto(nation)," the speaker reframes his earlier treatment of his estranged father, visualizing himself not just as a victim of the father but also a willing participant in the erasure of his father's misdeeds from memory. In "Notebook Fragments," the speaker contends with his own poetic voice as the key which links events as disparate as 9/11, his grandmother's sayings, and his own sex life.
The last two poems of the collection then fully showcase the complete evolution of the speaker from witness to agent. "Someday I'll Love Ocean Vuong," for example, sees the speaker convince himself that various elements of life, despite their burden, can be re-contextualized and understood in productive ways. "Devotion," the final poem in the collection, then sees the speaker where we began—in a kneeling position of mock prayer—but here, he has learned not just to observe but also to seize the beautiful and brief moments in which the body is able to provide pleasure and respite. The speaker is no longer a self-willed victim of a thing like religion, but rather claims his own personal life and sex life to be commensurate with religious ecstasy. Here, as throughout the collection, the body is the key (along with its attendant voice) that links all aspects of the human experience, and the speaker unpacks and reclaims his own experiences first and foremost by reclaiming his body.