One recurrent symbol in Night Sky with Exit Wounds is that of the horse or colt (i.e., a young male horse that has not been castrated). This image can be found as early as "Threshold" in the collection (where the speaker's father is described as a "dark colt paused in downpour") and has a couple of different valences.
First, there is the valence seen in "Threshold," "A Little Closer to the Edge," "Eurydice," and "Queen Under the Hill," in which the horse/colt image is literally representative of an animal. In each instance, the horse is used to evoke a kind of animalistic passion, brute strength, or untamed naïveté.
There is, however, another valence to this image, as seen in poems like "Always & Forever," and that is of the colt as a weapon. Where Ocean Vuong grew up in Hartford, Connecticut, there was an armory/factory for one of the oldest gun manufacturers in the United States, also called Colt. The Colt (as a proper name) is then used in Vuong's poetry as a locally sourced image of violence, destruction, and impending death.
The horse/colt symbol in Night Sky with Exit Wounds is thus just as dual of many of Vuong's other touchstones, able to touch on both a rough animal warmth and a cool, calculated form of human violence.
The image of the knife recurs often in the second and third sections of Night Sky with Exit Wounds and could be considered motific. In the collection's second section, the knife appears in "Homewrecker" as an object used to describe the kind of love shared by the speaker and his lover: "this is how we loved: a knife on the tongue turning / into a tongue." Here, the knife is evocative of violence and the threat that looms in the distance for the speaker and his lover, but also a kind of tenderness when placed in the mouth of two lovers.
Later, in "Torso of Air," the knife is used as an instrument to cut through the wall and gaze on happiness. Here, the knife takes on a more positive association insofar as it provides a kind of relief, albeit an uncanny one where there is an eye on the other side of the wall "waiting."
In "Prayer for the Newly Damned," the knife returns as both an incarnation of god and also the thing which threatens the form god takes in man (i.e., life).
Thus, throughout Night Sky with Exit Wounds, the knife is developed into a complex image with many associations, ranging from the threat of imminent death to the "light" that others might see or find in god. This underscores Vuong's view of violence and happiness as two sides of the same kind of a fundamentally human energy, unified in the body.
The Father (Motif)
The idea of the father and one's relationship with the father is a significant through line in Night Sky with Exit Wounds. This takes the form of both the speaker's obsession with unpacking his own father-son relationship and the speaker's desire to understand his own actions as intrinsically linked to the divine (i.e., the heavenly Father).
We have seen at length how the poems in the first half of the collection (e.g., "Telemachus," "A Little Closer to the Edge," "My Father Writes from Prison") construct the speaker's father as a tender yet troubled lover, whose passion is both his redeeming quality and his downfall (in the form of his abuse and lashing out). We have also seen how this role for the speaker's father develops towards the end of the collection ("Deto(nation)") to further demonstrate the speaker's uncertain attitude towards his father's past abuses and his failure to completely cut him off. This ambiguity is a direct challenge issued by Vuong against the canon of Western mythology that he claims is too fascinated with and fixated on the figure of the father. Moreover, the ambiguous place we are left with regarding the speaker's own father is paralleled by the speaker's unpacking of his relationship with a divine patriarch or religious Father. While the language in the collection's first section is rather reverent of the divine or at least describes the divine as something potent (e.g., "Aubade with Burning City," the end of "Immigrant Haibun"), poems like "Prayer for the Newly Damned" frame god as a rather indifferent, if not totally impotent authority in the face of real violence. Thus, in Night Sky with Exit Wounds, the father becomes not only a device for the speaker to reconcile his personal history with his complicity or involvement in larger systems, but also a figure that allows the speaker to recognize the immediacy of the present and the material world as experienced through his own body.
Fire and burning are two faces of the same motific process in Night Sky with Exit Wounds. Across various poems (e.g., "Trojan," "Aubade with Burning City," "My Father Writes from Prison," "Headfirst"), the idea of ignition and burning recurs with multiple valences. In general, fire is used to emphasize the destruction of something associated with violence, war, or desperation. This is in line with the idea that each of these things constitutes a different kind of erasure felt by the speaker—in other words, so many things about the speaker's past and present identity are at risk of being erased, so of course fire is a constant force he must contend with.
At the same time, however, the traditional association of fire with passion also rings true for the speaker. In "Devotion," for example, he uses fire as evocative of both erasure and the momentary bursts of ecstasy one is able to find in a troubled life: "& so what—if my feathers / are burning. I / never asked for flight. / Only to feel / this fully, this / entire, the way snow / touches bare skin—& is, / suddenly, snow / no longer." Fire, in destroying the relics of a troubled past and present, is also restorative in a strange way for the speaker.
Fire thus plays the role of yet another dual image in Vuong's poetry: when things are on fire, they burn beautifully for a moment, but they are also—like his own past and identity—at risk of being completely erased.
Many different kinds of flowers also surface and resurface throughout Night Sky With Exit Wounds, with Vuong even transforming the word petal in one place into a verb (i.e., in "Trojan"—"The dress / petaling off him like the skin / of an apple.") different from its standard medical usage. In general, however, Vuong uses the flower as a symbol of beauty, albeit one that is short-lived and in danger of collapse.
The fact that Vuong chooses to focus so heavily on different kinds of petals rather than whole flowers is also significant. While a flower itself might be evocative of the kind of unity explored in many Vuong poems (i.e., one that is both beautiful and frail, constantly at risk of extinguishment), the petal itself is only one piece of the flower that, when separated, cannot survive or function on its own. This emphasis on petals, rather than flowers, thus re-centers Vuong's fascination with systems that malfunction and relationships that break down. Our understanding of the petal is much like our understanding of the flower, but it is all the more poignant as an image because its existence is contingent upon separation.
Night Sky with Exit Wounds Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Night Sky with Exit Wounds is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.