The poem "Prayer for the Newly Damned" is the twenty-fifth poem in Ocean Vuong's Night Sky with Exit Wounds, and it is the second poem of the book's third section. It takes the form of a prayer to the "Father," evocative of both the Christian God and the speaker's literal father—an ambiguity that is in line with Vuong's exploration of both faith and the father figure in his life throughout the collection. In this prayer, the speaker apologizes to the Father for what he has seen: either a literal or figurative scene of violence where one man pressed a knife to another man's throat. It is unclear what caused this scene to transpire, but based on context clues that come at the end of the poem (i.e., "There's a question corroding / his tongue," and "Dearest Father, what becomes of the boy / no longer a boy?"), it is possible that the confrontation is between a father and son over the son's confused sexuality. At the very least, however, the speaker witnesses—either real or imagined—a scene of literal or figurative confrontational violence, and he apologizes to the Father for having witnessed this scene, recounted in gruesome detail (e.g., the threatened man's eyes begging; the threatened man wetting his pants). By the poem's close, the speaker wonders what role there even is for god in this world, where "the sheep are cannibals"—a reference to people as part of the flock of the divine shepherd.
The poem opens like a traditional confession, but the speaker substitutes the admission of sin for an admission of having witnessed something he should not have: "Dearest Father, forgive me for I have seen." This idea of witness as a type of transgression is an idea that we have already seen in the collection in poems like "Eurydice." Like many other poems in the collection, this poem is also staged in "a field," specifically one "lit / with summer." The setting of the field is evocative of life, death, and rebirth, and the tension across the line break in "lit / with summer" adds an additional violent undertone before we ever see the two men engaged in confrontation. The field appears lit as if by a blaze, but it is really just a trick of the light. So too is the dulling of the knife when viewed from the speaker's vantage point: "Steel turning to light / on sweat-slick neck."
The speaker then turns attention to his tongue, which "cleav[es] / the wind" and is thus evocative of the tongue-as-knife image we have seen in previous poems. The speaker apologizes for not "twisting [his] tongue into the shape / of [the Father's] name," which literally states that the speaker apologizes for having not prayed in that moment but might figuratively represent an apology for having not been more violent or fervent in the advocacy of religious traditions. The tongue as knife metaphor perhaps nicely links the speaker's apology for having not acted against the offending man to his fascination with this other man confronting him, who also uses a knife.
The speaker's fascination with the offending man's body and that body's reaction is also noteworthy. The speaker assumes that each prayer must begin with a futile plea that cleaves the wind "into what / a boy hears in his need to know / how pain blesses the body back / to its sinner." This idea that punitive treatment or punishment may bless the body and restore it to the agency of the person who used that body to sin seems paradoxical, yet it is a central tenet of confession and of many Christian sects. The body here is like an instrument, pressing its lips "to the black boot" of the person confronting it in order to stay alive. The speaker sees this almost transactional beauty of the body in the way that the "clear / & blue" eyes beg to stay alive. At the same time, however, there is suggestion that the body is not so mechanical as religious ideas of sin and repentance would have one believe when the speaker reacts involuntarily himself to the sinner wetting himself, itself an involuntary action: "Did my cheek twitch / when the wet shadow bloomed from his crotch / & trickled into ochre dirt?"
In noting the paradoxes contained within the body, the speaker then notes a paradox within god himself: god is able to become the blade, but also the finger "lodged inside the throat" that keeps it open and alive. Here, god seems to be made from the same contradictory stuff as humans, but the speaker still turns to him to resolve these essential tensions. The speaker asks god, "what becomes of the boy / no longer a boy?" and "what becomes of the shepherd / when the sheep are cannibals?" However—in line with the speaker's idea of god as, at best, an ambivalent actor and, at worst, a powerless witness—no answer is given.