Geo-Sexual Poetics: Ocean Vuong’s Memories
Signs in the Sky, Paul Klee, 1924
by Timothy Duffy
Night Sky with Exit Wounds,
by Ocean Vuong,
Copper Cannon Press, 70pp.
Whenever a volume of poetry by a quite young poet earns both an author interview in The New Yorker and a review by Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times, something special is happening. Ocean Vuong’s Whiting Award-winning collection Night Sky with Exit Wounds (Copper Cannon Press, 2016) is indeed an event, a collection that stays with the reader and insists upon its own importance without a shred of entitlement. As a collection, it earns each of its punches and lands them with surprising, humble force.
The collection oscillates between three distinct but intertwined spheres of influence: the events of the Vietnam war and evacuation of Saigon (all playing out well before Vuong’s birth but passed along to him in family stories), his family life as an immigrant in the United States with a complicated and tumultuous father and a mother he adores, and his life as a young gay man.
For Vuong, there is a natural violence to family, to memory, to sex, and to beauty itself. Sexual encounters, records of masturbation, and seemingly every observation move towards a meditation on violence and, more often than not, towards the geopolitical. In the hands of a clumsier poet, this could read as propagandistic or heavy-handed. In Vuong’s work, it doesn’t. Vuong produces a poetic persona caught up in a legacy of violence that created him, that shaped his linguistic and cultural identity, and that continues to shape his observations about his most intimate life. As he presents himself as the product of where rape, bombs, and history meet, his poems assert the geopolitical as behind the memory of intimacy, of family, and of day-to-day life.
In this collection, one travels from space to space: Brooklyn, Vietnam, New York City, Connecticut and many other places only to end up in the same composite space of Vuong’s persona.
Afterward, I woke
into the red dark
on this yellow pad
Vuong writes in “Logophobia”—turning to the Vietnamese word for “family” as the origin point of a spatial encounter that is, at its heart, the emotional center of his identity “I enter / my life / the way words / entered me–” Vuong’s fascination with Odysseus and Eurydice emphasize his fascination with the spatial dimensions of love and longing. An early poem chooses Telemachus, the waiting son, over Penelope to reveal the role a father’s loss plays in the erotic formation of the son:
… The face
not mine—but one I will wear
To kiss all my lovers good-night
the way I seal my father’s lips
with my own & begin
The faithful work of drowning.
Trauma, loss, and desire work together in Vuong’s imagination where even poems that take on familiar terrain press the reader to confront a geopolitics that invades every corner of inner life.
The poem “Ode to Masturbation” takes on a subject frequently tackled by young male poets, and yet, for Vuong, erotic cleverness in description once again takes us to far off terrains and national markers: “i reach down / looking for you / in american dirt // in towns with names / like hope / celebration / success & sweet / lips like little / saigon.” History, place, desire. Once again for Vuong the erotic self is mapped onto family history, the spaces of war and memory.
This is, above all, an honest and unpretentious collection. The assertive, chosen ungrammatical nature of some of the verse coupled with a confessional style and directness that can seem like a remix of Sharon Olds longs for intimacy with the reader, offering openness in the place of instruction (though we find ourselves learning throughout). Where lines like “9:47 a.m. Jerked off four times already. My arm kills” may remind the reader of dated phallocentric odes trying to make male eroticism seem endlessly fascinating in itself, Vuong corrects this by juxtaposing it with the previous lines:
An American soldier fucked a Vietnamese farmgirl. Thus my mother exists.
Thus I exist. Thus no bombs = no family = no me.
Yikes indeed. Violence is everywhere and yet there is an optimism and love to the whole collection. A love for memory, a love for the ambivalent trauma of a particularly difficulty history, nationally and personally, and, ultimately, a love for the reader who listens. For such a young poet in his first full-length collection, it is stunning to read such honest verse borne out of a real story. Vuong tells us things we don’t know and he tells us them leaving very little behind. When he writes “I lost it with all my eyes / wide open” we believe him and, by the end of the collection, we are grateful to share those eyes with him.
Vuong’s mother changed his first name to Ocean after realizing that such a large entity touched both America and Vietnam. The poems in this collection function in a similar way, they became large spaces in which borders are less relevant than fluid points of contact and all travel routes are perilous and beautiful.
About the Author:
Timothy Duffy is a scholar of lyric poetry and Renaissance literature who teaches in New York City.