There are poets who help us live with death and poets who lift us from the smoke of total oblivion. Ocean Vuong writes poems as svelte and sturdy as fire escapes, bridging readers with the most fragile and fraught of situations. After paying his dues as the refugee troubadour of Burnings (2010), he honored the lives of gay suicides in No (2013). He has since read at the Library of Congress, grand-marshalled at poetry slams, and presided as royalty on the queer circuit. His full-length debut Night Sky with Exit Wounds shows us what it means to shatter the oracle of public expectations, recovering the heroism of the helpless and staring the abyss into submission.
Vuong says he discovered the public library after seeing John Wayne mow down painted actors with his M16: “I went to the library to figure out how evil I was. Through books, I learned you could use words to make a person good or bad. Just like magic.” Born in Saigon, Vinh Quoc Vuong came here in 1990, when American remorse for inciting Communist reprisals and re-education camps created the rickety conditions for a second exodus of refugees from Vietnam. Barely two years old, he and six other family members ended up in a one-room apartment in Hartford, Connecticut, where the difficulties of adjusting to the new culture and economy soon took its toll on the men. The uncle who worked in a nail salon committed suicide; the father, a South Vietnamese war veteran, inflicted on the family his own set of frustrations.
So when the mother reclaimed her freedom through divorce, she renamed her son Ocean: “like that expansive stretch of water, I touch both nations but belong solely to neither.” Like the meaning of his own name, the Vietnam he imagines is a chimerical fiction, flashing with the “hideous head” of Troy, Rome, New York, and the Middle East. Vuong’s blazing imagery may derive their intensity from the oral traditions of his family, but they are nonetheless subject to the compassionate distortions of his own creative feeling. As he puts it in his new volume, “let me weave this deathbeam / the way a blind woman stitches a flap of skin back / to her daughter’s ribs.”
The competing claims that male violence and female witness make on the poet’s imagination is one of the major themes of Night Sky. The composite portrait of the Father as epic hero is ambivalent in the extreme. We see him rubbing his cheek against a dolphin and muffling his tears in the bathroom. Yet he also menaces in the guise of a GI raping the farm girl or the Chinese mafia who bequeaths his nastiness in a shoe box: “I hold the gun / & wonder if an entry wound in the night / would make a hole as wide as morning.” Does a boy even need a father to be an artist, Vuong asks in poems like “Detonation” and “Telemachus,” or can a boy disown such a legacy?
is the bullet hole in his back, brimming
With seawater. He is so still I think
He could be anyone’s father, found
The way a green bottle might appear
At a boy’s feet containing a year
He has never touched. (7)
Taking the wind out of the epic simile—often introduced by the way, or as if’—is a hallmark of Vuong’s vexed epic. Rather than shooting for the heroic sublime, he goes for dreamy deflation, describing the Father as though he were a stranger on a deserted island, or repurposing the bullet’s ricochet as a thread to sew together stories of the wounded. Even though the boy can’t disavow his physical likeness, he asserts his ability to control its manifestations: “the face / not mine — but one I will wear / to kiss all my lovers good-night.” The early “Telemachus” anticipates how the boy will find temporary relief from the inescapable shadow of the Father (in his literary, personal, and abstract guises) through the act of consorting with the enemy camp of his lovers.
Escaping the vertigo of violence means fashioning an aesthetics based on the toughness and tenderness of the grandmothers, mothers, and daughters who nurture the boy’s creativity: “I came out to my mother when I was eighteen,” recalls Vuong, “the difficulty of coming out [though] was very small compared to the horrors of bombs, bullets, and re-education camps. We lived as though we would never get a second chance, so we rarely had any prejudice.”
The unconditional love of the mother carries over in this volume through the delightful transformation of the “toothless war woman” who nags her “Stupid Boy” into the gay patron saint of the Sun shining on her Frank O’Hara: “Ocean, / are you listening? The most beautiful part / of your body is wherever /your mother’s shadow falls.” This vantage point of bodily care enables Vuong to glimpse what blind Homer had missed. In these poems, the Trojan warrior on fire will take on the likeness of “a boy in a red dress / the red of shut eyes” or a nun ablaze running towards a helicopter, as a Wagnerian rendition of “White Christmas” scores the evacuation of Saigon. One way of reading Night Sky, then, is as an epic of vulnerability, whose luminous flame catches the toughest of brutes at their most susceptible and the most susceptible of survivors at their fiercest.
If the strength of Vuong’s identifications with women and children anchors these poems, it is because he knows all too well the casualties of being a Man. The search for a more accommodating form began in Burnings, where Vuong fashioned a stanza with a diving plank, intended to evoke “across the hulls” of two flaming ships “a makeshift bridge.” With his move to New York, however, he has latched onto the tenuous bridge of the fire escape that embodies the iron will of the feeble.
This fascination with fire escapes is evident in an essay he wrote for The Rumpus. A fantasia of memoir, manifesto, and cultural history, “The Weight of our Living: On Hope, Fire Escapes, and Visible Desperation” (2014) relates the story of his uncle whose “quiet demeanor” gives his irritations no relief. Having fallen short of the benchmarks of a girlfriend and a job (that isn’t painting nails), he hangs himself from a weight bar when the cruel gossip pushes him over the edge. As Vuong processes this failure of communication, he channels a famous lunchtime walk to develop his own answer to the intimate mode of address that Frank O’Hara called “Personism.” What if poetry, he asks, were a sanctuary for the realm of the unpleasant, the unabashed, and the embarrassing, the space of discourse occupied by the fire escape:
I could spend a whole hour sitting across the street from a six-floor walkup studying the zigzags that clung to a building filled with so many hidden lives. All that richness and drama sealed away in a fortress whose walls echoed with communication of elemental or exquisite language…and yet only the fire escape…spoke…with the most visible human honesty …what would the fire escape look like if I were to wear it on my person, personality—in public?…if it was embedded into my daily language—and if I didn’t have to apologize for it?…What if a fire escape could be made into a bridge?”
The opposite of the armor and walls that men build up, the fire escape answers to Vuong’s desire for a form that makes it easier to flaunt one’s vulnerability rather than conceal it. Vuong goes so far as to express admiration for the way people adorn this symbol of “visible desperation” with tacky flower pots and bike racks to make it a more livable extension of their homes. A precedent for his new stanza, hinted at in his chapbook No, is the unabashed and double-decker line of James Schuyler’s (Pulitzer Prize winning epic) The Morning of the Poem:
How easily I could be in love with you,
_____Who do not like to be touched,
And yet I do not want to be in love with you,
_____nor you with me.
“Strange business” the chinky Chinamen said and
_____from the kitchen window. (CPJS 259)
Vuong, however, has given Schuyler’s flabby indolence and too-close-for-comfort intimacies a tougher workout (as he generally does in his streamlined response to the chattier misfits of the New York School). With Night Sky, he hammers the zigzags into a svelte structure of enjambments that carry the rhythm of alarm and alleviation across the line break. The scandal of tenderness that is “On Earth, We’re Briefly Gorgeous” is just one of many fine examples of Vuong’s fire escape in action, wrought to describe the most precarious of intimacies:
It’s not too late. Our heads haloed
_____with gnats & summer too early to leave
any marks. Your hand
_____under my shirt as static
intensifies on the radio.
_____Your other hand pointing
your daddy’s revolver
_____to the sky. Stars dropping one
by one in the crosshairs.
_____here. Already more than skin
can hold. That a boy sleeping
_____beside a boy
must make a field
_____full of ticking. That to say your name
is to hear the sound of clocks
_____being turned back another hour
_____finds our clothes
on your mother’s front porch, shed
_____like week-old lilies. (45)
These lines are the suspenseful conclusion to a series of anonymous escapades with younger and older men, who having fallen out of favor with society in one way or another, offer a boy respite from the turbulence of his own situation. Vuong not only takes Schuyler to school on this strange business of intimacy, he has shed the lily language of Oscar Wilde, like pajamas, leaving the evidence on the doorstep. He gives us the candor of the branded in this scene of two boys who talk each other down from the brink of gay suicide. Pointing the gun towards the stars, the boys refuse the stars’ claims on their lives. Conflating the godly and the gutter like his patron Saint Genet, Vuong clears in the minefield of hostility a magical field for their heartbeats. The faultless construction of these lines safeguards a series of variable intimacies whose fragility is a function of the opinion that makes suicide an alternative at all.
Although the anonymous sexual encounter has been a rite of passage for queer poets, Vuong uses the mismatch of expectations as a pretext for celebrating his triumphs over the inhibitions of the Old World and the underestimations of the New: “My mother said I could be anything / I wanted,” “I am ready to be every animal / you leave behind,” he writes in the defiant epigram “Thanksgiving 2006.” In these bohemian fairy tales, we see Asian boyhood kiss mom—or the gal pal—good-bye to meet the randy wolf in the woods. “thank you thank you thank you,” “because that’s what you say when a stranger steps out of summer / & offers you another hour to live.” Some readers may be shocked by the boy’s ownership of his status as exotic fetish, yet this is a risk that offers a psychic vacation from the grave of one’s inescapable past. In “The Smallest Measure,” the kind of vulnerability that the boy inhabits in these situations transmutes to a transgression against patriarchy. Here, the sangfroid of a doe appears to foil the father-son lesson of how to be a brute:
_____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.
_____sharpened through wet leaves.
I see the rifle coming
_______________down, then gone. (73–74).
Was Emily Dickinson wrong in identifying with the master’s Loaded Gun? No, but Vuong is a devout Buddhist. His nonviolent doe is a cross between Nature’s answer to a drag queen (planting her fierceness in the sight lines of adversity) and the Buddhist’s koan or paradoxical anecdote intended to demonstrate the limits of logical reasoning and to provoke enlightenment. Heavy with summer, channeling divinity from a godforsaken position, the doe, like the poem, is a question mark, her cocked hoof springing the roots of life rather than the bullets of death.
My one reservation about this book is that it is not heavy enough with summer. “If a guy tells you his favorite poet is Jack Kerouac, he’s probably a douchebag.” We need more of this stand-up, please, in the next volume. Then again, very few poets can do what Vuong does. His gift is not for avocados and fresh laundry, but for shocking the most jaded of readers with devastating earnestness.
Ocean Vuong is that rare architect of accommodation, giving the most precarious situations or embarrassing of grievances of our culture a sound environment in which they can thrive. As he kisses and tucks the parents in their beds, he sets out from the wreckage of his past towards a hard-won horizon of blunder and wonderment. At a time when poets are resigned to making boredom a commodity, he reminds us that the limits of intimacy are an exhilarating frontier, and that the most urgent communications begin with the overture of letting down one’s defenses.