Night Sky with Exit Wounds, Ocean Vuong, 89 pgs, Copper Canyon Press, coppercanyonpress.org, $16 USD
His writing is beautiful and charged with eroticism, but it’s also unrelenting in thematic heaviness. Recurrent throughout these poems is an abusive father, the legacy of the Vietnam War and emmigration, and pushback against the normalization of violence against LGBTQ* people. Ordinarily I’d breeze through a book this good in a sitting or two, but the writing’s quality and honesty made it something to be savoured, limiting my readings to just a couple poems at a time.Ocean Vuong’s most recent collection of poetry kicked my ass.
This book’s poetics are centred on the body and its senses as the site of pleasure, trauma and resistance. Flashes of colour and surprising turns of phrase strengthen a taut lyricism within experimental forms. For example, “Seventh Circle of Earth” is a devastating poem in the form of a page left blank other than for an epigraph (from a deadpan news report on an anti-gay hate crime/double murder in Texas) and reference marks that lead to the footnotes where the poem resides. Written from the viewpoint of one of the murdered men, a silenced voice is recuperated in a normally marginal space.
Ocean Vuong’s writing possesses Keats’ ‘Negative Capability’ in spades, as in the beautiful piece “In Newport I Watch My Father Lay His Cheek to a Beached Dolphin’s Wet Back.” Juxtaposing its titular, transcendental image of tenderness with the father’s capacity for extreme violence, while avoiding easy answers: “His right arm, inked with three falling/ phoenixes— torches/marking the lives he had/ or had not taken— cradles/ the pinkish snout. Its teeth/ gleaming like bullets.”
Nothing if not intense, Ocean Vuong’s masterful poetry holds the reader within a hairsbreadth of an inferno. Night Sky with Exit Wounds is a sustained barrage of body-blows emitted directly from the Real. (Joel Robert Ferguson)