Night Sky with Exit Wounds

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


The poem "Threshold" is the first poem in Ocean Vuong's Night Sky with Exit Wounds. It describes young Ocean's habit of watching his father shower through a keyhole and listening to him sing. As the poem recounts, however, young Ocean's father caught him spying one day to unknown consequence. As the poem closes, this personalized speaker—a poetic externalization of Ocean's self, reflects that the "cost" of being caught listening to his father was to "lose / [his] way back."


"Threshold" is a stark, yet highly technical, poem that sets the stage strongly for the rest of the collection and establishes many of its major themes and dynamics. It should not be lost on readers that the poem entitled "Threshold" is the first poem in the collection, siphoned off from even the first section by a dividing paratext—it is an invitation to cross that same line with the speaker and participate in a shared performance of his recollections and emotions.

It is primarily written in couplets, with the second line of each couplet being indented, until the final line, which exists alone on the line as a singleton. The movement of these lines forward and back on the page establishes a sense of lagging, observation, and following. Rather than a traditional couplet that appears as a neat package on the page, these lines give the impression that something is off—just out of reach in the white space of the indent—and that normal order has been disrupted. This directly connects to the speaker's fascination with his father's singing, which takes form in slightly perverse and voyeuristic observation. As the father showers and sings, the son watches and waits, paralleling the flow of the two lines in each couplet. This movement back and forth in the lines also establishes a sense of uncertainty or threshold-like status in the speaker—his speech advances just a bit, then falls back as if having crossed some line or threshold. This is the reason why, at the poem's end, when the speaker accepts falling into the song and into his eerie connection with his father, we only have one line—"wide open."

But just who is this speaker? In later poems in Night Sky with Exit Wounds, the speaker takes more definite shape as one specific figure or another, but in this poem, the speaker appears to be highly personal, reminiscent of Ocean Vuong himself. After looking at the photo on the collection's cover, where a semi-erased Ocean Vuong sits with his mother and aunt in the Philippines as a boy, the first writing we encounter is this poem where the speaker's relationship with his father closely resembles that semi-erased boy's own relationship with his father. Of course, the fact that poems need necessarily not be spoken from their authors' voices complicates this assumption, but this fact also serves as compelling evidence that this poem is spoken by Ocean himself. After all, is not the narrative distance of a lyric poem the same of semi-erasure that is performed on the collection's cover photo, with just enough evidence to substantiate a link but not the complete picture? Moreover, this poem importantly does not begin with an "I" but rather in a more inward place: "In the body, where everything has a price." This dive into the body, across the threshold where internal emotions and actions come into reality, is so intimate as to suggest legitimate first-person narration, told from the point of view of the real self. Together, these pieces of evidence provide compelling testimony that the "I" in this particular poem is Ocean himself.

Besides establishing the collection's hallmark theme of the father-son relationship and its deployment of the shifting speaker, "Threshold" is also significant for its introduction of several other important symbols and motifs. For example, the poem opens with the speaker in a position of both begging and prayer, "on [his] knees" and watching the father, who also may stand in for a type of god-like figure. This scene of spying on someone through a small peephole will be recapitulated later in section 3's poem "Torso of Air," a riff on Rilke's "Archaic Torso of Apollo." Additionally, this conflation of religious devotion and physical, sensory passion is a significant vein that runs through the collection, as well as the link between intimate scenes or encounters with mythical events or epic proportions. Separately, as we have already noted, the body—arguably the most important motif in this collection—is on full display in this poem, which recounts one body's visceral reaction to the way rain falls through another, singing body. The body as a site of both vulnerability (in the case of rain falling through) and stubbornness (as the father implicitly reprimands the speaker at the poem's end) is one of the central ideas in the collection, and it finds its first incarnation here. One other important motif established early on in "Threshold" is the price or cost of remembering something that is both traumatic and intimate, as this encounter is.

Finally, one image to keep track of throughout the collection is the image of the "colt" established here. The image of the colt, a young and sexually potent male horse, is important in Night Sky with Exit Wounds not only because it evokes the animal passion that sometimes rests within the human body (as in "Trojan," where this horse is evocative of the father's bravado in the face of his true weakness), but also because of the way that it can take on additional meanings. For example, in later poems like "Always & Forever," the colt becomes a Colt .45, a type of pistol that evokes the trauma of the past and the continued violences of the present. Though it is not as strong a valence as these two primary ones, note also that a Colt 45 is also a type of liquor or alcohol sold in the United States, which possibly is evocative of the drinking problem that the narrator's father seems to have.