Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Book Review: "Night Sky with Exit Wounds" by Ocean Vuong

The most beautiful part of your body
is where it's headed, & remember
loneliness is still time spent
with the world.

To read Ocean Vuong's Night Sky with Exit Wounds is to be dazzled by gorgeous lyricism. I picked this up as part of my exploration of contemporary poetry I have been experimenting with over the last several weeks. It's amazing the breadth of talent that exists in this genre.

I realized after reading the first few sentences of Vuong's first poem just how talented he is. It certainly explains why this book won the 2016 Whiting Award and the 2017 T.S. Eliot Prize, because some of his stanzas simply took my breath away.

Use it to prove how the stars
were always what we knew

they were the exit wounds
of every
misfired word.

Vuong spent the first two years of his life living in a refugee camp, and he never knew his father. This sense of emptiness is palpable through many of the 35 poems in this collection, as Vuong imagines reasons why his father wasn't part of his life. He imagines his father meeting violent or tragic, accidental ends, or even being imprisoned. In several poems, he imagines encounters with his father at various stages of his life.

Like any good son, I pull my father out
of the water, drag him by his hair

through white sand, his knuckles carving a trail
the waves rush in to erase.

Some of the poems touch on mythological themes, some touch on more realistic, violent ones, exploring the experience of Vietnamese refugees. One poem, "Aubade with Burning City," is based on the fact that Armed Forces Radio played the song "White Christmas" as a code to begin Operation Frequent Wind, the ultimate evacuation of American civilians and Vietnamese refugees by helicopter during the fall of Saigon in 1975. The poem juxtaposes verse with lyric fragments from the song, to beautiful effect.

The more poetry I've been reading, the more I realize that just as I prefer "traditional" short stories over those which take more experimental forms and narratives, I feel the same way about poetry. At times, Vuong experiments with form, language, even writes a poem using footnotes, and those poems didn't work for me.

In the end, however, Night Sky with Exit Wounds is at times contemplative, fiery, even erotic. Vuong's power lies in his words, and the emotions he conveys through them. While poetry doesn't get the type of recognition fiction and other genres get, Vuong definitely deserves to be heralded as an artist for our time.

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