The poem "Aubade with Burning City" is the fourth poem in Ocean Vuong's Night Sky with Exit Wounds, located in the first section, and it is one of the most well-known poems from the collection. The poem follows all of the death, destruction, and chaos that evolved in Saigon on April 29, 1975, when the American military evacuated civilians and Vietnamese refugees from the city by helicopter, leaving the city to fall to North Vietnamese forces. These embodiments of chaos and death include a dead chief of police "facedown in a pool of Coca-Cola," a crushed dog in the street, gunfire, an explosive shell bursting, and a "nun on fire."
At the same time that this destruction takes place, however, an intimate encounter is staged between a soldier and a woman in a hotel room that is interspersed with these images of destruction. Their dialogue is written into the poem in italics.
Even more complex, however, is the fact that these two alternate stories of the same day are also interweaved with lyrics from Irving Berlin's song "White Christmas"—also written in italics—which the epigraph tells us was the very song that was used as a signal for American forces to evacuate. The poem begins with the lovers drinking champagne, and ends with the burning nun running "silently toward her god," both of which use the same language of opening.
An aubade is a poem that is written to accompany the break of day, most commonly in the context of two lovers parting. In the case of this poem, then, it is particularly interesting that the morning scene between the two lovers is vastly overshadowed both formally and imaginatively by the imagery of Saigon's destruction. Moreover, the invocation of the aubade in this poem is unusual insofar as there is no clear first-person speaker ("I") in the text, but rather a third-person narrative style. Its presence in the poem, nonetheless, is evocative of both the stubbornness of love and passion—even against the backdrops of war and violence—as well as the fragility of love and its ability to be torn apart at any second by something like war. On a broader level, the idea of the aubade also extends to the departure of American forces from Vietnam, as well as the departure from one life to the next life or towards death.
Besides this deployment of the aubade in the poem, however, there are many other figurative and thematic elements that warrant further analysis. Regarding the use of lyrics from "White Christmas," a clear irony is present in that Vietnam only has snow in its cool northern region, so the use of the song in the context of Saigon in April is doubly out of place. Moreover, the repetition of certain lyrics—together with certain images (i.e., "milkflower petals" and the dog) emphasizes not only the piling up of wreckage in the city but also echoes on a content level the examination and re-examination of the fall of Saigon from different angles and perspectives.
In addition, the similar formatting of these lyrics, the conversation between the lovers, and the words spoken by god to the nun at the end of the poem mixes up the tonal register of the poem and contributes towards the linkage of the personal, the communal, and the mythical (or, in this case, religious). This confusion and general disarray in the poem's images and tone is also mirrored by the poem's form, which flows freely across the page in stanzas of irregular length.
Finally, it is not just the personal and mythical that are interweaved in "Aubade"; rather, the poem is also centrally sustained by a discussion of the ways in which the sacred and profane interact. On the side of the sacred or religious, there are each of the poem's connotations of otherworldly whiteness or purity, as well as the nun's immolation at the end of the poem. Notably, this divinity is not an easy or preferable divinity, but an awesome and terrible one. On the side of the profane, then we have the encounter between the lovers, the dog being smashed into the road, the soldier "spit[ting] out / his cigarette," and the fallen chief of police. Much like the poem's portrayal of the divine, however, these profane and worldly encounters are coded in a relatively negative light with the only exception coming in the form of the "sprig of magnolia expand[ing]." That the sacred and the profane themselves become confused as ideas is especially reinforced by the same language of resignation being used to describe both the lovers and the nun: "Open, he says. / She opens." The fact that these identical words bookend the poem both carries the finality of a religious incantation and gives the impression of a chance occurrence or coincidence, a complex feeling that is pulled off here to exquisite effect.