Christopher R. Vaughan
Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 2016. 89 pages. $16.00.
In “Threshold,” the opening poem in Ocean Vuong’s first full-length collection, Night Sky with Exit Wounds, the narrator attests, “In the body, where everything has a price, / I was a beggar.” From his knees, he watches a man singing and showering through a bathroom keyhole, “the rain / falling through him: guitar strings snapping / over his globed shoulders,” all the way to a chilling denouement:
That one morning, my father would stop
—a dark colt paused in downpour—
& listen for my clutched breath
behind the door.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
So I entered. So I lost.
I lost it all with my eyes
The “dark colt paused,” the guitar strings over “globed shoulders,” and that wide-eyed, grim conclusion: “Threshold” at once displays Vuong’s talent for imagery, attention to craft, and his capacity to bring forth a bitter, vulnerable voice to life’s ups and downs. The violation that closes this first poem opens the questions that fire Night Sky: To what extent must the trauma of family and the irruptions of migration be carried forth across generations? What does it take to break the chains, and what are the costs to this severance? Finally, what is worth holding onto?
The father figure looms, not so much like the original sin evoked by “Threshold” but rather as a gun equipped with a full magazine and a semiautomatic mechanism. In “Always & Forever,” the father urges “Open this when you need me most” as he bestows a box containing a Colt .45. The gift, such as it is, sparks disturbing ruminations: “I hold the gun / & wonder if an entry wound in the night / would make a hole wide as morning,” he says, even as he thinks that “Maybe the day will close without . . . his father’s clutch tighten[ing].” At last, the boy considers, “The way the barrel, aimed at the sky, must tighten / around a bullet / to make it speak.”
Over and over, Vuong takes aim at his tough yet tenuous ability to soldier on with all he carries. His confessional runs from the streets of Brooklyn to the prison whence his father writes, from a Newport beach to the marshy places of his fervent assignations, from Berlin’s White Christmas to Rothko in an art gallery to the cloisters where Vuong pleasures himself.
In the language of our time, Vuong’s story (the author is Saigon-born, New York-residing) is an exemplar of “intersections.” He draws widely on myth and spirituality: Menelaus, Eurydice, Odysseus, and much Christ imagery all make their appearance. And Vuong’s form ranges from anaphora to prose poetry, an aubade to an “Ode to Masturbation.”
What are Vuong’s origins? We learn that a boy’s very genealogy was borne of the worst form of imperialist advantage. In the wide-ranging “Self-Portrait with Exit Wounds,” Vuong wishes his story might
reach the grandfather fucking
the pregnant farmgirl in the back of his army jeep,
his blond hair flickering in napalm-blasted wind, let it pin
him down to dust where his future daughters rise,
fingers blistered with salt & Agent Orange
Among Vuong’s tasks is to write himself away from all this. From “Deto(nation)”:
There’s a joke that ends with—huh?
It’s the bomb saying here is your father.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
To even write father
is to carve a portion of the day
out of a bomb-bright page.
In the conflicted push and pull of so many migrant tales, Vuong must also decide what to hang on to, and turns to the maternal figure. In “A Little Closer to the Edge,” two parents
step, hand in hand,
into the bomb crater.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
His faux Rolex, weeks
from shattering against her cheek, now dims
like a miniature moon behind her hair.
While Vuong wishes to unburden himself of “O father, O foreshadow,” his mother is his lodestar:
Show me how ruin makes a home
out of hip bones. O mother,
O minute hand, teach me
how to hold a man the way thirst
If he contains multitudes, he must split them in order to survive.
Throughout Night Sky, Vuong applies his father’s instruction on bodies—“My son, tell them / the body is a blade that sharpens / by cutting”—to his very lines. His confessionalism spares nobody and hides nothing, image after image whipped through the blade sharpener.
Yet if the task bequeathed him by his mother, to “show me how ruin makes a home,” is genuine, then he reaches for that star in the most moving ways. “The Gift” is not just his father’s gun, after all. In the poem of that title, we see a mother figure steadily teaching the young speaker his ABCs—but not progressing past those first three letters. The portrait is tender and exact, understated even as it anatomizes the chemical risks of that common Vietnamese-American livelihood:
But I can see the fourth letter:
a strand of black hair—unraveled
from the alphabet
on her cheek.
Even now the nail salon
will not leave her: isopropyl acetate,
ethyl acetate, chloride, sodium lauryl
sulfate & sweat fuming
through her pink
I ♥ NY t-shirt.
Not only do his father’s admonitions persist, but so does that “strand of hair,” living “with no sound. Like a word. / I still hear it.”
A picture of split loyalties, a child of Vietnam and America, wrought from their wars and enterprises, Vuong carries multiple passports in his embattled countries of the mind:
In Vietnamese, the word for grenade is “bom,” from the French “pomme,”
Or was it American for “bomb”?
This is no mere wordplay. A reader who can get past the title of “Ode to Masturbation” will discover very bitter fruit indeed:
i reach down
looking for you
in american dirt
in towns with names
success & sweet
lips like little
& sanford towns
whose trees know
the weight of history
can bend their branches
Here is the country of the body Vuong so vividly inhabits. His sexual freedom must be harvested from the “wet grass” of “the baseball field behind the dugout,” from under the “sapphired air” of a field that “turns / its secrets / into peonies,” from the seat of a divorced “stranger’s car,” where “Our heads haloed / with gnats & summer too early to leave / any marks.” If this is sexual freedom, indeed, the hidden locations of its consummation bespeak the risk of violence always lurking, like a vehicle waiting at the edge of a field in darkness, ready to “leave” its rather vicious “marks” in another “laramie” or strung from another “branch.”
Like the rampant ampersands of Vuong’s poems, the scenes of love and release constantly divide and juxtapose. Ultimately, the body in this collection goes from object to subject, as boy becomes man and can at last act physically and sexually on his own terms, form bonds with men very much of his own choosing. The otherwise heavy Night Sky even closes with a sweet (but hardly tame) “Devotion” for a new year’s sex as “holy” as “holding / a man’s heartbeat / between your teeth.” Far from the attic or closed doors we see elsewhere, here the act occurs in the light of an uncurtained window:
crackling on the window,
each flake a letter
from an alphabet
I’ve shut out for good
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Only to feel
this fully, this
entire . . . .