The poem "Eurydice" is the twenty-first poem in Ocean Vuong's Night Sky with Exit Wounds, and it is the ninth poem of the book's second section. It retells the classical story of Orpheus, a bard from Greek mythology, and his wife Eurydice, whom he descends to the underworld to retrieve. In the original tale, Orpheus is able to retrieve Eurydice from the underworld under the one condition that he not turn around and look at her until they are completely out of the underworld. Foolishly, however, Orpheus is unable to resist, and he is deprived of her once again when he cannot help but turn and look at her on the threshold of the underworld and the surface realm.
Ocean Vuong's poem take this original legend and situates it rather differently, with the primary relationship in the poem being one between the speaker and another man. Most of the body of the poem is spent trying to understand and analyze the feeling of loss that the speaker feels in losing this male lover. The sudden entrance of a hoofed female figure at the end of the poem, after the speaker and his love interest are separated, then raises the question of whom Eurydice is. Do the woman's hooves, somewhat demonic, symbolize an ill-spirited woman whom the lover has left the speaker for—in which case, is the speaker like Eurydice, abandoned in a figurative underworld? Evidence that suggests as much comes later in the third section's "Notebook Fragments," where the speaker thinks of himself as a type of Eurydice: "If Orpheus were a woman I wouldn't be stuck down here." Alternatively, are the woman's hooves something like the horse imagery that has been prevalent throughout the collection—symbolic of both violence and passion (see also this horse as a piano in the poem "Queen Under the Hill," which closes the collection's second section)—cueing us to think that perhaps the Orpheus figure really is able to retrieve Eurydice, but in doing so, must fall into the same mix of pleasure and pain that the speaker has subjected himself to?
One of the first things readers are likely to notice about "Eurydice" is its form, consisting of a series of couplets where the second line of each is indented. The white space of these indents not only evokes the distance between the speaker and the subject/love interest that we have reached by the poem's conclusion, but also forces the reader to engage in a practice of "turning back" like Orpheus when reaching the end of each couplet. The form thus literally enacts Orpheus's separation from Eurydice, while also implicating readers in this loss (since we, too, turn back). Importantly, "Eurydice" thus continues Ocean Vuong's preoccupation with the link between the personal and the mythological, as well as the relativity of these constructions.
This idea of relativity is introduced from the poem's very first image—"It's more like the sound / a doe makes / when the arrowhead / replaces the day / with an answer / to the rib's hollowed / hum." The ultimate loss of the lover is like the death of a doe when shot with an arrow, but even here the small tragedy of the doe's death is linked to the Biblical by way of the rib, which evokes Adam's creation of Eve. This Edenic imagery continues as the speaker and his lover seem to anticipate their falling out just as Adam and Eve may have foreseen the Fall: "We saw it coming / but kept walking though the hole / in the garden." Later, relativity assumes a different valence as we consider the different ways that light and sound can work "depending on where you stand." It is not just relative whether certain tragedies are personal or epic, but also what constitutes the meat of these tragedies in the first place .
The "you" in this moment is at once personal, general, and self-reflexive. In it, the speaker seems to be addressing himself, contemplating just how much his relationship with his lover has left him empty: "how dark / [the light] makes you depending / on where you stand." At the same time, however, the speaker seems to be asking the same of his lover. Still, even separate from these two interpretations, there is the more obvious interpretation that "you" here is simply a general pronoun that stands in for a similar word like "one." "You" is used, then, in order to implicate us in a similar way to the manner that we are forced to emulate Orpheus in turning back. In this poem and context, witnessing something or looking at it is enough to make us guilty or culpable (like Orpheus). We thus share in the guilt of the speaker and his lover as we continue to puzzle over the aftermath of their union.
The speaker seems to reach a kind of resolution for himself on this topic with a phrase that lays much of the poem bare: "Silly me. I thought love was real / & the body imaginary." Here, the speaker has awakened to the idea that the only thing that is real in a situation like this is, of course, the body and its cravings. In the same way that Orpheus loses Eurdyice at the threshold of the underworld and the world of the living, so too does the figurative Orpheus of the speaker's lover lose the speaker over the body, on the threshold between emotion and physical passion.
As we have seen above, however the entrance of the hoofed woman figure at the end of the poem complicates the poem's message. Is the speaker simply watching the lover interact with a new person and feeling hurt, or is there a victory of some sort at the poem's end, when another body that represents a mix of passion and pain is accepted "beside" the lover? We are not presented with a resolution. Still, with the estranged language of "him" and "the girl," we are now like the speaker, distant from a situation we were once active in, left only to watch as it unfolds before us.