The Vietnam War is rightly considered by many, including the speaker of this collection, to have been a time of unimaginable destruction, death, and violence. For the speaker of this collection, however, the Vietnam War encompasses another quality—it is the event that precipitated the birth of his family line, since his origin lies with a “grandfather fucking / [a] pregnant farmgirl in the back of his army jeep.” Or, as rephrased more explicitly in the later poem “Notebook Fragments,” “An American soldier fucked a Vietnamese farmgirl. Thus my mother exists. / Thus I exist. Thus no bombs = no family = no me. / Yikes.” The fact that, even amidst a backdrop of war and destruction, there is tenderness and love that is so personal and significant for the speaker is a central theme that runs throughout the collection insofar as it ties in with the collection’s larger project of exploring duality. The tenderness associated with both the speaker’s grandparents and parents in Vietnam makes it all the more heartbreaking that they were displaced from the country, but the speaker himself never forgets his own roots in violent events. Considering the complexity and ambiguity of this past is one thing that gets the speaker thinking about his own ability to act violently and tenderly in the present.
The Body as Unity
As the speaker looks backward to his past in an effort to understand how he can originate from such a violent place, he also attempts to reconcile his understandings of the past with who he is in the present. Central to the speaker’s undertaking of both of these tasks is his choice to foreground and center the body as a site where opposites are unified. The body in passion met with the body experiencing struggle and difficulty give rise to the speaker’s family line (“Self Portrait as Exit Wounds”). His own body as a recipient of pain and abuse fuels his capacity to receive and deliver both harm and tenderness to others with his body (“On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous”). The sacred and the profane meet in the body as the devotional act of prayer is commingled with devotional acts of sex and physical passion (“Devotion”). The parental/societal violence and anger that is often attendant with homosexual love in America meets with the experience of pure ecstasy in the body (“Homewrecker”). Wherever one looks in the collection, they see along with the speaker that the body is central in unifying all these disparate and opposite experiences simply because it is the physical material that underpins life, which itself is so curious and strange so as to connect things that otherwise would seem totally unrelated.
Gay Love in America
Related to the body’s capacity to unify opposing forces is the speaker’s treatment of gay love in America. In most poems in the collection (notably, “Homewrecker” and “Prayer for the Newly Damned”), the love between two boys or two men is presented as something that both participants—or at the very least the speaker—know will lead to upset or violence within their family. Nonetheless, the speaker’s relationships with many different men do progress, reflecting one of the many paradoxes that finds its solution in the body—despite knowing what it may cost, the speaker and his lovers choose to love one another because of how it makes them feel or how close it brings them to the peak of life. This, however, is not all: Night Sky with Exit Woundsis not just focused on honestly depicting the experience of being gay, but being gay in America. In poems like “Seventh Circle of Earth,” Vuong and his speaker suggest that being gay is antithetical to the constructed cultural ideal of America, and that to be gay in America is necessarily to be erased at every moment in one’s life. Of course, this is only one type of erasure faced by the speaker in the collection—notably, he also faces marginalization based on his race and his status as an immigrant. This complex sense of erasure experienced by the speaker sheds a great deal of light on why he finds salvation in the body, which unifies the various identities that lead to his societal rejection.
The Family in Conflict
One of the other things that troubles the speaker immensely throughout the collection is his relationship with his father, as well as his father's relationship with his mother. Regarding the former, the speaker struggles to reconcile his distance from his estranged father, as well as the abuse he knows his mother has suffered at his hands, with the closeness he feels to his father. He remarks on their physical similarity, among other things (“Telemachus”), but he also seems to respect and understand his father as a passionate and kind lover with a troubled past that leads him to lash out (“My Father Writes from Prison”). He is unable to completely cut off his father in his mind, and he at times even outright refuses to confront his misdeeds (“Deto(nation)”).
Regarding the relationship between his father and mother, the speaker primarily focuses on how loving and physically passionate they were with one another, despite his knowledge that their relationship eventually fell apart and became more and more abusive. Though it might seem odd for a child to fixate on his parents’ sex lives, doing so renders his father as a more sympathetic character and also allows the conflict between his parents to be incorporated into his broader exploration of sex and the body. By understanding what brings them together so intimately, we are even more taken aback by the knowledge that their relationship is doomed to fail, giving us more personal investment in their relationship and placing us in the position of the speaker.
The Immigrant Experience
The experience of immigration is also deeply important to Vuong and his speaker. In the poem “Immigrant Haibun,” for example we are able to understand how the experience of immigration was both daunting for the speaker’s parents but also brought them closer together. This deepens our understanding of the relationship between the speaker’s parents and what kinds of stress it was under. Separately, however, the last prose line of the poem suggests that the speaker sees another important aspect of tackling the immigrant experience in writing: “Everyone can forget / us—as long as you remember.” The speaker knows how arduous the experience of immigration was for his parents, and he knows that it led to a less-than-glamorous place (e.g., his father’s abuses, his mother working at a nail salon à la “The Gift”), but he knows that it was for him and his well-being. Despite the fact that even he himself faces discrimination in America on account of his race and sexuality, the speaker is able to help his parents ensure that their migration was not in vain by reenacting and making known their struggle, the immigrant struggle that is so often invisible or erased.
Mythology Meets the Mundane
Another important theme that runs throughout the collection comes in the form of mythology—specifically, mythology’s encounters with the everyday or mundane. At times, the speaker attempts to show the various ways in which common struggles or occurrences can take on the significance of myth: for example, he sees himself at times as an isolated or banished lover like Eurydice (“Eurydice”), and other times he maps the experience of immigration to the travels undergone in the Odyssey. This is importantly linked to the speaker’s interrogation of the body as a unifying force, one that connects the struggles of real people to the struggles that are lauded, told, and retold as part of the Western literary tradition. Related but perhaps more significant, however, is the speaker’s engagement with mythology in poems like “Telemachus” that links the speaker’s father to a mythic tradition. In an interview with The Guardian’s Claire Armitstead, Vuong himself addressed this engagement nicely: "Western mythology is so charged with the father […] Personally, I’m always asking who’s my father. Like Homer, I felt I’d better make it up. The Japanese have a word for it: yugen, when you have so little you have to imagine it."
Thus, Vuong and the speaker of his poems see the appropriation of mythology as a kind of challenge issued against fate, the daring desire to fill a real void with something of the poetic imagination. The strength that the speaker and Vuong see in poetry is unmistakable and linked to the power that they see in the body, but it is also a testament to the necessity of the father in constructing a personal mythos. Without the father, would we as readers understand the speaker’s personal history as thoroughly? And if so, what does that say about the kinds of stories we are conditioned to read and accept?
The Hollowness of the American Ideal
Though much is sacrificed in Night Sky with Exit Wounds in service of the American Dream or American ideal, we are provided with ample evidence throughout the collection that such an ideal is merely fictive. In "Seventh Circle of Earth," for example, we see how two gay men have so internalized this frail American ideal that they are conditioned to accept their own annihilation or destruction. Further, in "Of Thee I Sing," Jackie Kennedy is able to rationalize the death of her husband only in the context or service of her love for her country and her love of god. Only in "Untitled," where 9/11 commingles with the loss of a friend of the speaker's, do we really get any sympathy on the speaker's part for America; however, even this sympathy is conditioned by the fact that it is for the experience of loss or sorrow, rather than anything intrinsically linked to America. In Night Sky with Exit Wounds, the idea of the American Dream is thus presented as just that—a dream with little substance. Rather, our attention is directed to all those who are victimized in its name but who paradoxically look to it for relief and safety.
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.