“An American soldier fucked a Vietnamese farmgirl. Thus my mother exists.
Thus I exist. Thus no bombs = no family = no me.”
In these lines from the poem “Notebook Fragments”, Ocean Vuong succinctly lays out a central idea that he grapples with over and over in his debut full-length collection Night Sky with Exit Wounds: the reconciliation of an identity and being with all the violence of the past paths that lead to one’s creation. And Night Sky is filled with violence, both promised and delivered. But it is also full of family, fathers and mothers, full of moments and memories and history. It’s full of music.
When I say it’s full of music, I mean both in the figurative notion we often afford to poetry and the literal. Figuratively, there’s the idea (that we here at the B-side are more than slightly prone to) that poetic language is also musical language, that poems are often just song lyrics without melodies. Vuong’s words adhere to this idea, but what’s more, his poetry dances across the page. Many of the poems in the book play with form. This can be the simple alternation of indentations and spacing seen in pieces like “The Smallest Measure”
Heavy with summer, I
am the doe whose one hoof cocks
like a question ready to open
roots, & like any god
-forsaken thing, I want nothing more
than my breaths.
Or, it can be something akin to the poem “Seventh Circle of Earth”, where the poem itself is entirely blank save for a series of super scripted numbers indicating foot-notes. And of course, there at the bottom of the page is the lines we were expecting, set into stanzas by their numbers, and cut into lines by slashes.
Vuong’s language-play goes beyond the expected musicality of words, beyond sound-work and imagery (though I must note, those aspects of poetry ARE present, and Vuong is masterful at them) onto the page itself. He is not just seeking new ways to say things, but new ways to present what he wants to say. Whether it be through zig-zagging across it, or leaving it empty to better capture the echoes of its walls, Vuong is working wholly with the page, utilizing its boundaries and capturing the space of it to emphasize his language.
Now, I did say that I meant that Vuong works with music both figuratively and literally. Musical notes ring throughout the book, rain becomes “guitar strings snapping”, a moment of voyeurism is noted because “he was singing, which is why/I remember it”, sacrifice is the loss of music when “he burned his last violin to keep my feet warm” and the “shadow of missiles” becomes “god playing an air piano.” Pianos come back in the poem “Queen Under the Hill”:
I approach a field. A black piano waits
at its center. I kneel to play
what I can. A single key. A tooth
tossed down a well. My fingers
sliding the slimy gums. Slick lips. Snout. Not
a piano – but a mare
draped in a black sheet.
Like Robert Duncan’s “Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow”, from which Vuong’s poem draws its title, the poem’s setting is an empty field, seemingly drawn up by the poet’s mind. Unlike Duncan however, Vuong works with the queen he finds in the middle of his field, “turning bones/to sonatas.” He finds solidarity with the mare in the field, which, like him, holds multiple identities at once: mare, piano, queen. Vuong notes that “if I lift the sheet/I will sleep beside her/as a four-legged shadow.”
Perhaps the most obvious use of music in Night Sky with Exit Wounds is in the poem “Aubade with Burning City.” (which can be read in full at poetryfoundation.org) The poem acts as a microcosm of the book and its themes as well, interweaving some formal experimentation alongside images of violence and beauty, the aforementioned music, and of course how history and heritage can shape who we are now.
The burning city of the title is Saigon, the poem detailing the evacuation of the city signaled by the playing of “White Christmas” over the radio. An aubade is traditionally a love poem written in the afterglow of the morning as two lovers part. In this aubade, however, it is unclear whether or not we are witnessing the afterglow. What is clear is that the lovers are not parting. The parting is instead relegated to the citizens and refugees as they board the helicopters that lift “the living just out of reach.”
Meanwhile, the poem is pervaded by the lyrics of “White Christmas”, first as merely a song echoing alongside the poem, then working its way into the imagery itself: “when the dust rises, a black dog/lies in the road panting. Its hind legs/crushed into the shine/of a white Christmas.” finally, it begins to warp the city itself, “snow crackling against the window. Snow shredded//with gunfire…The city so white it is ready for ink.”
Perhaps the ink the city is ready for is Vuong’s own. Perhaps this is how we reconcile ourselves with the past that created us. As Vuong does, we write it, we extrapolate it from multiple points, we search out its beautiful moments, we don’t shy away from the dirty, bloody parts, and we turn it into art. We write it and we sing it, until it begins to change, until it begins to make some semblance of sense.
Night Sky with Exit Wounds
by Ocean Vuong
Copper Canyon Press (April 5th, 2016)
For more from Ocean Vuong, visit: http://www.oceanvuong.com/