The poem "Self-Portrait as Exit Wounds" is the twelfth poem in Ocean Vuong's Night Sky with Exit Wounds, and it is the final poem of the book's first section. Because this poem is given the title of "Self-Portrait," and because the family history retold in the poem closely mirrors Ocean Vuong's own family history (e.g., a Hapa mother born to an American soldier and Vietnamese farmgirl, a father in prison, etc.), it is likely that we are meant to understand this poem as directly spoken by the poet himself. The poem itself follows the narrative of Ocean's own refugee experience, tracing it as a result of racism and violence during and following the Vietnam War. As the poem's narrative flits between images of longing, death, and destruction, however, the speaker also comes to understand himself as not just a victim of violence but also a perpetrator of violence. At the poem's end, a far cry from the "refugee camp" in the poem's third stanza, our speaker wants to understand himself as an insurgent Vietnamese fighter, one who wants to "believe [he] was born / to cock back this rife, smooth & slick, [...] / [...] lower [himself] between the sights & pray / that nothing moves."
The poem is startling and highly crafted in its treatment of both the macro-scale and micro-scale dynamics of war. Like other poems in Night Sky with Exit Wounds, then, "Self-Portrait" is a poem preoccupied with linking the individual to something larger—be it a mythic collective, historical collective, or ethnic/racial group. In this poem, each of these three larger constructions plays a very active role. Regarding the manner in which the smaller scale of the individual is addressed in the poem, it is important to note that several distinct characters come into play here—the speaker, the father, the mother, the grandfather, and the grandmother, each of whom is influenced by war in profound ways. Moreover, the poem's title invites us to consider the "self" as "exit wounds" and thus consider an alternate title of the collection to be "Night Sky with Self." Still, the title itself is only one cue for us to understand the collection and this poem better as preoccupied with the links between people and large-scale actions. For example, the poem's couplet form also invites us to consider each person as both an individual and an important piece in a large-scale movement or event. Finally, the idea of an "exit wound" is important to consider in itself: the exit wound is not just the result of individual gun violence, but also might be understood to reference the exit or immigration from Vietnam that weighs heavily on the speaker's mind.
The poem's most prominent formal device is the somewhat anaphoric repetition of "let" at the beginning of successive clauses, which creates a quick and feverish rhythm compounded by both the use of the ampersand and the lack of full stops (i.e., punctuation marks that indicate a longer breath should be taken, like a period, dash, or colon) throughout the first half of the poem (though these do come in—first with a colon—once Ha Long Bay is mentioned). While we are originally told to "let it be the echo to every footstep," "let it enter a room," "let it brush," "let it slide," and so on, we are not told explicitly what "it" is. This is a very deliberate choice by the poet and reflects both a confusion of feeling on his part as well as an inability to name this confusion that has spun out of the trauma of the Vietnam War. Still, though the speaker is unable to name the feeling that all these disparate images produce in his mind, he recounts them for us in succession.
We are presented with the image of a sinking boat leaving a country, the image of the refugee camp, and the image of the "successful" American Dream family in quick succession. Note that this lattermost image is coded heavily with whiteness (i.e., snow, mayonnaise, Wonder Bread) and seems to celebrate a hollow ideal: "testament / to a triumph no one recalls." The hollowness of the dream of perfect assimilation into American culture disintegrates almost immediately, however, as images of Americana (i.e., John Wayne, Michael Jackson, guns like the M16) are unmasked as witnesses or participants in racist violence (i.e., the slur of "brown gook"). After we see just how empty the general idea of the American immigrant ideal is, we are then taken down into the level of the individual and the specific. The speaker's mother looks for someone like her father in the grocery store, before the Edenic image of the apple reminds us of the animalistic passion and transgression of sex. The speaker's father sits in prison. The speaker recalls the destruction at beautiful Ha Long Bay just before visualizing sex between his grandparents against this backdrop ("his blond hair flickering in the napalm-blasted wind"). Each individual promise of certainty, generatively, or the good life is necessarily predated, precluded, or facilitated by violence and cruelty.
This realization—not only of the link between people and larger-scale events like war, but also of the link between joy and cruelty—initially is disconcerting to the speaker, but by the poem's end, the speaker resolves to attempt to clumsily restore order to his feelings, in the same way that a "blind woman stitches a flap of skin back / to her daughter's ribs." The way to do it, he has decided, is to realize his own potential for inflicting harm on others, becoming a solider himself who holds a rifle and readies himself to shoot. He and his family history might be thought of as exit wounds resulting from the Vietnam War, but they are also individuals who will produce exit wounds in other people. They are their own wounds, but also the wounds of those they will hurt in their own stubborn attempts to live.