An Ocean of Darkness: A Review of Ocean Vuong’s Night Sky With Exit Wounds
Ocean Vuong’s poetry collection, Night Sky With Exit Wounds (Copper Canyon Press 2016), is the most beautifully written book I have read in a long time. It’s a masterpiece. As someone who writes, edits, and publishes poetry—for whom it is Body and Blood—I don’t say that lightly. Poetry such as Vuong’s is so generous in craft and heart it makes me grateful and inspired, which is why I’m almost apologetic for what I have to say next. For a poetry collection so exquisitely realized, I found Night Sky With Exit Wounds a joyless undertaking.
This isn’t to say that I don’t admire Ocean Vuong’s poetry. Quite the opposite. He is a writer of extraordinary talent—not merely great, but brilliant. Mark my words: Ocean Vuong will join the pantheon of masters of American literature. Among Walt Whitman, Sylvia Plath, and the poetic greats, we Vietnamese-Americans will find one of our very own. Night Sky With Exit Wounds shows he is capable of ascending such heights. There are lines of poetry throughout the collection that ran through me like electricity and left me shaken.
He is a master of imagery, of creating descriptions so clear and crisp you are transposed into the life of the poem. With a line from the poem, “Homewrecker,” for example, you, too, feel the spark and flame of a lover’s touch: “Your fingers/ through my hair—my hair a wildfire.” It is not just the clarity and confidence of Vuong’s descriptions that amaze me, but it is that they also have something of linguistic alchemy, the power to transform and even re-invent experience, where every day sensations and notions are re-imagined and transfigured, and you see the world as never before. In the poem “A Little Closer to the Edge,” a walk beneath a moonless sky is a journey into a “night full of black teeth,” and something as mundane as a fruit falling to the ground becomes a stampede: “apples thunder the earth with red hooves.” Such descriptions go beyond metaphor; they are in the realm of magic.
Vuong’s book is a sumptuous feast of poetic craft and heart, but at meal’s end, I sat in silence and felt a deep hunger still—a joylessness—despite the abundance of beauty and art that is Night Sky With Exit Wounds. Poetry for me is sustenance; it feeds life, and so in it, I look for illumination. Even in the world’s darkest poems, for example, Dylan Thomas’ “Rage Against the Dying of the Light,” there is affirmation of life and celebration. Instead, I find that Vuong’s poetry denies life; in it, life itself is damaged, and to move through the world is to move from one circle of Hell to another. More than doom and gloom; it is fatally nihilistic, and with poem after damning poem, the collection becomes an ocean of darkness in which you feel like you are drowning. All the beauty in world cannot help you when you are drowning.
Take, for instance, one of his most important poems: “Ode to Masturbation.” In 2010, I had read an earlier version of it in a literary journal and fell in love with its unapologetic sensuousness, the wild courage of its sexiness. It is a profound Whitmanesque celebration of self, an ecstatic defiance to the brutality of life. As you cross through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, the poet grants you a benediction: “There is music /in the body, play yourself /like a lyre.” Love yourself; find happiness in yourself. I loved the poem so much I was heartbroken when I read it in Night Sky With Exit Wounds. It has become an entirely different poem, still powerful, but lifeless now and imagistically frigid; the carnal revelry, throbbing vitality, and lifeblood of the original poem have all but been drained from it. Love is impossible, the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre infamously wrote. In this poem, as with all poems in the book, Vuong seems to take the notion further: even self-love is impossible.
It seems that the poetry in Night Sky With Exit Wounds is meant to impale, to inflict some kind of psychic or existential pain. Everything has to hurt. How does Vuong describe that great feeling of falling in love? The levity of being with a lover, that wondrous feeling of walking on clouds is “gravity breaking/ our kneecaps just to show us/ the sky.” Love cannot be left alone; it has to be tortured. Love cannot be beautiful, only beautifully brutal. The poet intimates to a lover: “When our lips touched the day closed /into a coffin.” Perhaps it is because it is gay love that the poet writes about that makes it so fatalistic, and his writing is an indictment of self and society, but then again, the other kinds of relations depicted in the book (father and son, mother and father, etc) are just as grim and impossible. Poem after poem, page after page, Night Sky With Exit Wounds reads like a “body [that] is a blade that sharpens/ by cutting.”
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Writer and dreamer, Vuong is founder of Tourane Poetry Press and editor of Perfume River Poetry Review. His work has been published in prominent literary journals, and he is a frequent reader at poetry events in the South Bay. His work is an examination of the Vietnamese-American experience, what it means to be Vietnamese so far away from quê hương (motherland). He believes that every Vietnamese is a poet at heart.