Night Sky with Exit Wounds

Night Sky with Exit Wounds Summary and Analysis of "Telemachus"


The poem "Telemachus" is the second poem in Ocean Vuong's Night Sky with Exit Wounds, and it is the first poem in the first section proper. It follows the speaker as he drags his drowning and shot father from the ocean, attempts to resuscitate his father, and fails. At the poem's end, the speaker reflects that he will wear his father's face for the rest of his life and "begin / the faithful work of drowning."


"Telemachus" continues developing many of the motifs and themes that were introduced in "Threshold." Like "Threshold," the poem is written in couplets that are evocative of the bond between father and son, sealed figuratively by the presence of the father's face on his son and literally by the sealing of the father's lips at the poem's end.

Moreover, the poem's title is evocative of both the father-son relationship and the connection between the mythological and the personal that is reinforced elsewhere in Night Sky with Exit Wounds. First, in Homer's Odyssey, Telemachus is Odysseus's son, who travels at sea in an attempt to locate and find his father, who is yet to return from the Trojan War. In a similar way, this poem is about a son who goes to sea in search of his father and—unlike Telemachus—actually finds him. Additionally, the fact that Telemachus's name means "far from battle" or "far-fighter" is evocative of Ocean Vuong's own immigrant experience, still fighting off the traumatic experiences and legacies of the Vietnam War even after he lives in the United States. Thus, in "Telemachus," the speaker's personal experiences with his father—similar to Vuong's own in the same manner as the speaker in "Threshold"—are concatenated with mythical experiences, reflecting a genuine challenge against the Western canon as well as the audacity to imagine that the experiences of Asian refugees—and, in particular, one whom Ocean knew only very peripherally—really are similar or equivalent to the travels of Odysseus in Homer's classic. The poem invites us to make these connections and recognize the dead father as both a tragically frail and heroically resolute figure. A similar mission is undertaken by the poem which immediately follows "Telemachus"—"Trojan"—in which the father's traumatic past and weakness are hidden by "dance" and bravado in a similar way to how the Trojan horse held the Greeks (including Odysseus himself).

In this vein, the poem's main thrust is in showing the connection of the speaker to his father. Note here how we open before a clear "I" is established with the words "like any good son." The "I" is central to the poem, but he is still secondary to his own son-ness when considered in relation to his father. Importantly, the natural erasure in the second stanza is evocative of the same kind of erasure, seen in "Threshold," being played with throughout the collection, and it is this erasure perhaps which moves the speaker to write and keep his father alive on the page for a bit longer.

The presence of the "bombed cathedral" and the way it is internalized eventually into the father's "sea-black eyes" reflects not only the father's possible piousness, but also the father's (and, by extension, the son's) investment in the past. After all, the cathedral is no longer just bombed, but has become "a cathedral of trees" during the length of the father's ocean crossing.

A particularly important moment comes towards the poem's middle, where the father is so still so as to appear as an alien object or "green bottle." This, again, draws our attention to the importance of the body for the speaker as a repository of both life and action, both of which are precluded by death.

These themes and ideas reach a head in the poem's last two stanzas. The move from wearing the father's face towards "kiss[ing] all my lovers good-night" re-emphasizes the body as a contradictorily frail site of wounding and as the source of romantic pleasure. The speaker locates this tension aptly in remarking that he will use his departed father's face to also bring closure to each encounter he has with a lover. Moreover, the presence of the ampersand in the penultimate line, reiterated many times throughout the collection in place of the word "and," seems to produce a greater sense of linkage between the father and son. Even language fails to capture both the tightness of the father-son bond and the immediacy of the speaker setting out to begin his "faithful work," and a symbol (&) is thus used to visually communicate the information. Finally, the fact that the speaker addresses drowning as "faithful work" calls back to the father's possibly religious investment in the cathedral and brings our attention to the weight of history, to the constant contending that children must do with the traumas of their parents' pasts in order to faithfully live their life.