Ocean Vuong acquired his name late in life. At birth, he was given the name Vinh Quoc Vuong. It wasn’t until the family arrived in the US that his mother decided to rename him.
On a summer day at the nail salon, she told a customer that she wanted to go to the beach. She kept saying, “I want to go to the bitch,” Vuong told me. The customer suggested that she use the word “ocean” instead. Upon learning that the ocean is not a beach but a body of water that touches many countries—including Vietnam and the United States—she renamed her son.Daniel Wenger, “How a Poet Named Ocean Vuong Means to Fix the English Language” in The New Yorker, 7 Apr 2016
At the time of Wenger’s interview, Ocean Vuong had just published his first book, a poetry collection called Night Sky with Exit Wounds. For this collection, Vuong won the Whiting Award, the T.S. Eliot Prize, the Thom Gunn Award, and the 2017 Forward Prize for Best First Collection. Among poets, his is a household name.
For me, Night Sky with Exit Wounds would be my entry point into Vietnam, a way to prepare for our trip around the world.
Words Without Borders lists Night Sky with Exit Wounds as 1 of 39 must-read books from Vietnam and its diaspora. The challenge of any list of this nature is somehow to truly understand a country’s values, culture and people. For Americans like me coming of age in the 1970s, the Vietnam War dominates my conception.
Night Sky with Exit Wounds addresses the war in its first section. These are powerful poems that meld facts with family history. Then Ocean Vuong adds his own form of alchemy to transform the whole into fire.
In “Aubade with Burning City,” Vuong uses the signal devised by US forces to mark the evacuation of American civilians and Vietnamese refugees. It was Irving Berlin’s song, “White Christmas.” So began the fall of Saigon.
Milkflower petals in the street
like pieces of a girl's dress.
May your days be merry and bright ...
He fills a teacup with champagne, brings it to her lips.
Open, he says.
Outside, a soldier spits out
his cigarette as footsteps fill the square like stones
fallen from the sky. May
all your Christmases be white
as the traffic guards unstraps his holster.
His fingers running the hem
of her white dress. A single candle.
Their shadows: two wicks.
A military truck speeds through the intersection, children
shrieking inside. A bicycle hurled
through a store window. When the dust rises, a black dog
lies panting in the road. Its hind legs
crushed into the shine
of a white Christmas [...]
Ocean Vuong was born in 1988, too young to have experienced war himself. These poems are based on stories his mother and grandmother told. But Vuong is more than a mere scribe. He has the power to imagine himself in Saigon as the first shell flashes or afloat in Ha Long Bay where only the dead look up to the sky. Ocean Vuong imagines his father as a prisoner-of-war, in grey overalls reeking of gasoline or lying face-down on a Vietnamese beach.
Like any good son, I pull my father out
of the water, drag him by his hair
through white sand, his knuckles carving a trail
the waves rush in to erase. Because the city
beyond the shore is no longer
where we left it. Because the bombed
cathedral is now a cathedral
of trees. I kneel beside him to see how far
I might sink. Do you know who I am,
Ba? But the answer never comes. The answer
is the bullet hole in his back, brimming
with seawater [...]
An American Experiment
Ocean Vuong’s father did not die on the shores of Vietnam. He was imprisoned soon after the family’s arrival in the US in 1990 for beating Ocean Vuong’s mother. The absent father looms, sometimes malevolent, sometimes kind, almost always violent. His gift to his son in “Always & Forever” is a Colt .45 for when you need me most.
“The Gift” from his mother is different.
a b c a b c a b c
She doesn't know what comes after.
So we begin again:
a b c a b c a b c
But I can see the fourth letter:
a strand of black hair — unraveled
from the alphabet
on her cheek [...]
Vuong depicts his mother at her job in the nail salon, the scent of chemicals and sweat ever present. He writes about his earliest sexual encounters in the baseball field behind the dugout / flecked with newports torn condoms, and of friends who die of overdoses.
The New Yorker described Vuong’s writing like watching a fish move: he manages the varied currents of English with muscled intuition. Yet Ocean Vuong was the first in his family to read any language properly. Even today, the idea of him as a professional poet mystifies his relatives. They call him a scholar instead.
Becoming Ocean Vuong
The poems in Night Sky with Exit Wounds are deeply personal. Ocean Vuong wrestles with his family’s memories of war, inherited trauma, and the complexities of Otherness. For example, Vuong says he wrote the poem “Self-Portrait as Exit Wounds”
as a response to how brown and yellow bodies are often depicted, or rather, written over, in Western literature. I wanted to reclaim that narrative while still signaling the legacy of violence and reductive portrayal of Asian bodies by Western writers.Ocean Vuong on poets.org
Vuong shows himself to be an ally when commemorating other forms of violence like that of Jeffrey Dahmer, 9/11, and the case of “a gay couple, Michael Humphrey and Clayton Capshaw […] murdered by immolation in their home in Dallas, Texas.”
Yet there also poems of love and survival in Night Sky with Exit Wounds. In “The Smallest Measure,” father and son go deer hunting. The boy holds the Winchester. His father whispers encouragement. Go ahead. / She’s all yours. The doe sees the boy crying, two arms unhinging / the rifle from the boy’s grip. But no shot rings out.
[...] I see
an orange cap touching
an orange cap. No, a man
bending over his son
the way the hunted,
for centuries, must bend
over its own reflection
In my copy of Night Sky with Exit Wounds, almost every page is dogeared. Pencil marks litter the margins. Lines are circled. With creativity and precision and, above all, compassion, Ocean Vuong has turned the stories he’s heard into his own. Read him.
2 July 2019 | Karen Kao