Night Sky with Exit Wounds

Night Sky with Exit Wounds Summary and Analysis of "Notebook Fragments"


The poem "Notebook Fragments" is the twenty-ninth poem in Ocean Vuong's Night Sky with Exit Wounds, and it is the sixth poem of the book's third section. Like "Ode to Masturbation" (the poem immediately preceding "Notebook Fragments"), the poem is lengthy, spanning 5 pages, and it mixes a variety of the collection's broader themes (religion, sexuality, violence and war, nationality, the family) in a pseudo-fragmented way. Upon reading the fragments together, however, they produce a semi-complete picture of the speaker's life and emotional state.

Despite the highly complex, somewhat contradictory, and effusive assertions that are made throughout the poem, however, the speaker leaves us with a very spare assertion: "Here. That's all I wanted to be. / I promise." This naked cry out to just exist and be content with living is important, not just because it lays bare the series of claims made throughout the poem, but also because it represents a progression in the speaker towards learning to be content with himself, rather than having his happiness depend on his attachment to broken figures (the idea with which the poem opens): "A scar's width of warmth on a worn man's neck. / That's all I wanted to be." Even if this wish is futile, like some of the speaker's other promises in the poem ("I promise to stop soon" and "I met a man. I promise to stop"), it is still important as an utterance used to track the speaker's state of mind.


Just as the poem purports in its title, the text is presented in the form of disparate fragments, written out as either singleton lines or couplets. Many of the fragments evoke, repeat, or call back to other fragments, such as the repeated promise of the speaker to "stop." Not only is the repeated assertion that he will stop meant to produce the feeling of helplessness regarding his more destructive habits (i.e., having sex with strangers, doing drugs), but it is also meant to imply a kind of poetic failure, an inability to stop writing. The speaker keeps living his life, and the words keep coming and overflowing, filling page after page.

Besides the speaker's promises, however, there are many other interesting repetitions or references that appear in the poem. For example, the speaker's repetition of "Good or bad?" after two rather opposite phrases—"Discovery: My longest public hair is 1.2 inches" and "There are over 13,000 unidentified body parts from the World Trade Center / being stored in an underground repository in New York City"—yokes together minor experiences of discovery with large-scale traumatic events. While certain through lines in the poem link certain fragments—for example, how death links the above fragment about the World Trade Center to the fragment that follows ("Shouldn't heaven be superheavy by now?")—poetic repetition does the work of linking these incredibly disparate fragments that can only be described as united in life and living. The only possible through line that connects these things is the speaker's own life experience and poetic voice, reproduced and felt on the page by his use of repetition.

Other repetitions that are important to note include the speaker's notation of his grandmother's sayings—which cover topics spanning war recollection, general advice, and religious metaphor—the speaker's love for his mother, the speaker's meetings with different men, and the speaker's fascination with the way that the Vietnamese language is linked to violence. To this lattermost point, the speaker cites two examples: "In Vietnamese, the word for grenade is 'bom,' from the French 'pomme,' / meaning 'apple.' / Or was it American for 'bomb'?" and "Eggplant = cà pháo = 'grenade tomato.' Thus nourishment defined by extinction."

This idea of logical conclusion or equation in the eggplant quote above is also, itself, a repetition. Just a few lines above, the speaker lays his whole life bare by linking it inextricably to violence: "An American soldier fucked a Vietnamese farmgirl. Thus my mother exists. / Thus I exist. Thus no bombs = no family = no me. / Yikes." Even so, the fact of the matter is that the poem before us on the page is a testament to the poet's inability to completely circumscribe his life with one kind of logic or label. His life is a series of contradictory desires, broken promises, spontaneous discoveries, and inheritances from lives that are not his own. This is why, at the poem's end, the speaker simply resolves himself to be "here," both literally at that point on the page and figuratively in life. Despite everything, the stubborn fact of life is sometimes enough to encompass or justify a variety of strange and unlikely happenings, and one needs only to confront themself in the mirror (as at the end of "The Smallest Measure" and "Odysseus Redux") to understand this.