Night Sky with Exit Wounds

Night Sky with Exit Wounds Summary and Analysis of "Devotion"


The poem "Devotion" is the thirty-fifth and final poem in Ocean Vuong's Night Sky with Exit Wounds. It explores the power of the speaker's mouth, both to pray and beg for mercy, but also to write poetry and perform sex acts. In this unity provided by the body and the mouth, the speaker believes he is able to fully engage in the act of living, as well as savor the brief moment that his life provides him on earth: "Only to feel / this fully, this / entire, the way snow / touches bare skin—& is, / suddenly, snow / no longer."


The poem casts the act of kneeling to perform a sex act as a kind of devotional prayer. This oscillation back and forth between religious devotion and physical, sexual devotion is mirrored by the poem's seesawing form, in which the gaps left by one line are filled by the next. Prayer and pleasure are somewhat opposite, but also complimentary in that both provide a brief moment of rapture or pleasure intended to fill or tend to an absence or craving. In the beginning, our speaker is on his knees just as he was in the poem that opened Night Sky with Exit Wounds, "Threshold." Instead of watching passively, however, here he is an active agent, pleasing either god or a sexual partner as "another man leav[es] / into [his] throat." The man is not coming, as would be conventional language for sex, but rather evacuating and emptying the speaker; in the religious valence, the man being spoken of could be god himself as words of prayer fill and leave the speaker's mouth.

The mouth is a site of ambivalence, and later phrases in the poem reinforce this idea: "the difference / between prayer & mercy / is how you move / the tongue." However, it is not just the mouth that is acting ambiguously, but also the body as the speaker gets physical with a man: "I press mine / to the navel's familiar / whorl, molasses threads / descending toward / devotion." Here, the lover's body hair is also a trail towards religious salvation. The speaker addresses this conflation explicitly in the next phrase: "there's nothing / more holy than holding / a man's heartbeat between / your teeth, sharpened with too much air."

So the body and mouth are the site where prayer, lust, and supplication take place, but where does poetry come in? The idea that the teeth are "sharpened with too much air" suggests that, as air passes in and out of the mouth, it sharpens the teeth like a blade. This, of course, connotes the idea that living and submitting one's self to the body is an act of resistance or stubbornness—a theme that has been seen throughout the collection—but it also may be meant to figuratively evoke poetry. Whenever the mouth is mentioned in the poetic tradition, and whenever birds and bards are (the bard Orpheus being a recurrent symbol in the book along with birds, which appear in this poem in the form of "feathers"), it is often a cue that the speaker has poetry on their mind (i.e., that the poem they speak may be an ars poetica, or a poem written about the art of writing). That poetry, which resides in the mouth, also can be interpreted to be about prayer, mercy, and physical passion is the final unity that closes the collection. The speaker has matured from someone puzzling over their own body to someone who knows the contours of its contradictions, relishing and exploring each of them more "fully" through poetry.