Night Sky with Exit Wounds

Night Sky with Exit Wounds Summary and Analysis of "Of Thee I Sing"


The poem "Of Thee I Sing" is the fifteenth poem in Ocean Vuong's Night Sky with Exit Wounds, and it is the third poem of the book's second section. It recounts the assassination of John F. Kennedy from the perspective of his wife Jackie. Primarily, Jackie thinks about the image that they cut as an all-American couple, as well as how much she loves her country. When the fatal shots take out her husband, Jackie is only able to think of the event in terms of their former perfection, as well as how the assassination brings an end to their hopes and dreams of this perfection. The poem leaves us on an image that illustrates this explicitly, with Jackie's blood-stained glove: "My one white glove / glistening pink — with all / our American dreams."


Two things about the poem are likely to strike readers as soon as they see it on the page. The first is the fact that the poem's title alludes to "My Country 'Tis of Thee," a popular American patriotic song. This fact introduces the idea of an American mythosthe imaginary and ideal version of America prominent in patriotic media. The second is that the poem is written in one large block of text that switches between right and left justification, almost giving the impression that the poem is severed. Not only does this give the impression of an call-and-response (albeit an imaginary one, since only one voice speaks throughout the poem), but it also evokes the abruptness of the assassination, the torn nature of Jackie and her late husband's American Dream, and more grotesquely, the explosion of Kennedy's head after being shot.

This duality in form is mirrored by duality in the poem's content, which oscillates between the violent and the tranquil, the grotesque and the ideal. While Kennedy's "golden hair / & pressed grey suit," packaged together with an ampersand, are evocative of a white American ideal, the "blond daughter" who comes later is diving for cover to avoid gunfire. Kennedy is tenderly saying Jackie's name, but it comes out "like a slaughterhouse." The blood coming out of Kennedy's cranial gun-wound is "a brief / rainbow through a mist / of rust." She is reaching back on the trunk of the car to grab pieces of her husband's face, but she is doing so to find "a shard of [his] memory, / the one where [they] kiss & the nation / glitters." Still, in the face of all of this destruction, Jackie is only able to be unequivocal in saying one thing—that she loves her country, and that she is a good citizen. Even as the fantasy of her American dream collapses around her, she can only repeat what she has been brought up and indoctrinated to believe will save her.

Importantly, this poem is similar in form and content to a later poem in the collection's second section, "Seventh Circle of Earth," which recounts the murder of two gay men in a 2011 arson. In that poem, also set in Dallas, all of the poem's content is relegated to footnotes—indicating a type of erasure that is not present in "Of Thee I Sing"—but one thing that is consistent between the two poems is their treatment of Americanness. In both poems, Americanness is a hollow ideal that fails to bring back the dead who are killed in its name. Kennedy is killed while serving as president, but he was still a man who was loved by his family and wife. The gay couple who dies in "Seventh Circle" is "American" insofar as they die to uphold the falsely idealistic and heteronormative culture of America, but their death is still very real and tragic—two entire worlds eliminated without a second thought by someone whose shallow picture of "America" does not include them. Thus, "Of Thee I Sing" and "Seventh Circle of Earth" might be considered to be two counterpoints on the same issue—the emptiness of the American Dream, and the sticker price of an American life—written from the top and bottom, respectively, of the same American totem pole.