The poem "My Father Writes from Prison" is the eighth poem in Ocean Vuong's Night Sky with Exit Wounds, located in the first section. The poem takes the form of an imagined letter, written in a mix of Vietnamese and English, from the true speaker's (i.e., as indicated by "my"; most likely Ocean Vuong himself) father to his mother. While the poem opens with general platitudes being spoken in Vietnamese (these are parsed in the glossary), it eventually lapses into an incredibly intimate, frank, and fragmented discussion of the father's emotional state. After the father expresses his desire to have agency once again ("to have something change / in my hands", "to be shattered & rebuilt," etc.) and talks about the experience of being in prison, he turns towards his longing for his wife, Lan. In doing so, the poem closes with the father pressing his face to a tiny woman and imagining intimacy with her once again ("a grey dawn / lifts the hem of your purple dress / & I ignite").
Like a letter, the poem is written with an address ("Lan oi") and has a body that is not broken up into stanzas (i.e., it is stichic). Despite this, however, it has a series of intra-line breaks that create a poetic rhythm, a sense of urgency, and a sense of fragmentation that is parallel to the sense of isolation that the father feels in prison. Also in regard to the poem's form, the fact that the poem is an imagined letter from the speaker's father to his mother also solidifies the poem's status as a kind of self-mythologized artifact—that is, it is a piece of evidence that is meant to support the mythology of how the speaker imagines his father's time in prison might be. As such, the poem represents, like many other poems in the collection, an attempt to link the personal and the epic, as well as those long since gone and those who remain in the present.
The treatment of the multiple languages in the poem is particularly interesting. The fact that the poem begins with Vietnamese, a language that the majority of Vuong's English-speaking audience is not likely to understand, is interesting insofar as it provides readers with content that they are not able to parse, yet that they are certain to interpret one way or another based on the context of the poem. Specifically, if non-Vietnamese speakers read the poem, they might interpret these insertions of Vietnamese as an appeal to make the poem sound more "authentically" like the speaker's father.
However, as Yen Pham writes, to speak of the poem's authenticity is to open a can of worms: while "his [Vuong's] father really was in prison, [...] it was a Communist prison, and letters, if they came at all, were censored. In writing poems like this, Vuong seeks 'not necessarily to speak for anyone, but to offer a rendition—in a way a phantom—of what could have been... Every attempt to speak is also a grieving of the voice that never arrived.'" Thus, by putting on the guise of his father by using Vietnamese before lapsing into English, the speaker might be enacting a similar type of obfuscation or fantasy to the kind that is cast aside when the imagined persona sheds the Vietnamese language later in the poem: "again dear Lan or / Lan oi what does it / matter." One might also connect the fraught nature of language in explaining or depicting the speaker's family history to the poem "The Gift," in which the speaker is taught by his mother how to write while he focuses on the beautiful shape of her hair strands.
One other important aspect of the poem that warrants our attention is the presence of cruelty or violence in the poem. Early on, the speaker's father mentions that he "pressed [a] 9mm to [a] boy's / twitching cheek [when he] was 22." This would-be or phantom murder is also echoed by the violent scene in which the father drags a saw out in the middle of the night and witnesses a couple people get shot to death. This idea of the father as violent or associated with violence has already been hinted at in earlier poems, but it will be contradicted or tempered two poems later when we see just how tender the speaker's father can be while he is also being cruel or violent ("In Newport...").
Importantly, as expressed here and in other poems throughout Night Sky with Exit Wounds, the thing which allows the father to calm himself and be at ease is the thought of his woman, despite how far away she might be. When he thinks of her, he "ignite[s]," a word that cleverly conveys both the zeal and passion of lovemaking and the destructive implications of possible anger, violence, or abuse. For the father, it is the body that tempts and catalyzes evil, but the body is also that which provides salvation and respite from turmoil. This idea of the mother as the luminary of the family will be repeated in the poem that immediately follows "My Father Writes from Prison" ("Headfirst"), as well as the poem that follows "In Newport..." ("The Gift"). Moreover, the idea of the body as something fragile that nonetheless can be weaponized or energized comes through in the penultimate line of "Headfirst" as well: "the body is a blade that sharpens / by cutting."