Night Sky with Exit Wounds

Night Sky with Exit Wounds Summary and Analysis of "A Little Closer to the Edge"


The poem "A Little Closer to the Edge" is the fifth poem in Ocean Vuong's Night Sky with Exit Wounds, located in the first section. The poem follows a sexual encounter between the speaker's father and mother, and it uses the language of the Garden of Eden to describe their coupling. We are also told that the father will strike the mother figure in the near future. At the poem's conclusion, the speaker addresses his mother and asks her to teach him how to love a man properly, before appealing to a land "where apples thunder / the earth with red hooves. & I am your son."


Like "Threshold" before it, "A Little Closer to the Edge" is a poem that positions the speaker as an observer of the parents—this time in a more explicitly sexual context. While this might be somewhat uncomfortable for most readers to wrap their heads around, such a project is actually quite understandable when contextualized within the collection's larger preoccupation with the many potentials of the body.

Here, while the body is explored as an object of sexual desire, it is also showcased as something that can be victimized, as well as something that can be respected and loved as a forerunner or ancestor. The speaker is fascinated with these contradictory and tense dynamics of the body, and he contemplates that his parents' passion is a necessary pretext for his own creation. This is the reason that the speaker most likely wants to learn "how to hold a man the way thirst / holds water": only in doing this himself will the speaker also be able to redeem his body, turning it into something loved, respected, and with agency—despite the hardships of the past and present. This idea, that pleasure and union with another person might serve as a type of bodily salvation, is also mirrored formally here since the poem is grouped into couplets.

Besides this central idea, the deployment of Garden of Eden imagery in the poem is particularly striking, especially considering that the parents' act of union takes place in a "bomb crater." That a bomb crater can bear witness to the kind of generative act represented by sex also introduces an element of cyclicality to the poem, adding to the idea that even a doomed or hurt body can experience pleasure and produce new things. Moreover, here, there is no kind of divine temptation—"in this version, the snake is headless." This situates us firmly in the realm of the profane and removes any godly or Biblical connotations beyond the basic correspondence to the Garden of Eden. After all, with no snake to tempt the woman, she and the man are free to reproduce within the crater—something Eve and Adam were not able to do in the Garden of Eden.

Another Edenic moment in the poem comes when the speaker—a very unclear figure but one who nonetheless, as in past poems, resembles Ocean Vuong himself—ask his father to "show [him] how ruin makes a home / out of hip bones." While literally referring to the consolation one gets from sex with a lover, this line might also be taken to figuratively refer to Adam's construction of Eve from his side (though this is traditionally interpreted to mean Adam's rib bones).

Finally, the apples in the final stanza are evocative of the forbidden fruit which led to Adam and Eve's expulsion from the Garden of Eden, and their thundering on the earth "with red hooves" evokes not only the intensity of the speaker's desired passions but also the animalistic nature of these passions. This horse image is recurrent from poems like "Threshold" and will be repeated two poems later in "Always and Forever," a poem in which the horse transforms into a gun (using the heteronym "colt"). Moreover, the fact that the apples are linked fluidly with an ampersand to the "son" at the end of the poem might reflect an aspect of the immigrant experience, since partaking in the fruit (and thus, the son) necessarily must result in an expulsion from Eden. This association of the child figure with expulsion, displacement, or tragedy is echoed in the poem that immediately follows "A Little Closer," "Immigrant Haibun."

Other aspects of the poem that warrant attention are the repeated use of the apostrophe and the appearance of moon imagery. In the case of the former, the use of the apostrophe to address figures that are not literally present (i.e., "O father," "O mother") not only emphasizes the speaker's perceived distance from his own family, but also sonically echoes the content of the rest of the poem by mimicking noises of sexual pleasure. In the case of the latter, the elevation of the "faux Rolex" into a "miniature moon" serves as yet another instance in Night Sky with Exit Wounds where the pedestrian is elevated to something on the scale of the cosmic, epic, or divine. Additionally, the moon itself is used as a recurring image throughout the collection—for example, in the haiku that closes "Immigrant Haibun," where it also serves to link the divine and the civilian (by comparing the two migrants to God's eyes): "Summer in the mind. / God opens his other eye: / two moons in the lake."