Ocean Vuong and the Body as Poetry

By: Nicholas DiBenedetto

I hold the gun / & wonder if an entry wound in the night / would make a hole wide as morning.” Ocean Vuong “Always & Forever”

Ocean Vuong, Night Sky with Exit Wounds. Taken by Nicholas DiBenedetto.

“Have you heard of Ocean Vuong?” Having received what seems like universal acclaim from critics for his first book of poetry, Night Sky with Exit Wounds, it seems impossible for anyone even remotely interested in contemporary poetics to have not heard of Vuong. Yet, I answered “no,” to this question in late-2016 as I met with my professor, Cathy Schlund-Vials, to discuss potential topics for my mid-term paper in her course on Asian American literature. I’d come to the meeting familiar with and interested in some of the big Asian American voices in poetry: Jenny Zhang, Franny Choi, and Cathy Park Hong, among others. But as Professor Schlund-Vials and I sat in her office, listening to a recording of Vuong’s “Aubade with Burning City,” staring at the three-legged pig on her shelf, I felt hypnotized by the thrum of language coming out of her computer speakers. I would go on to write about Vuong for that paper and read his debut collection as I got deep into that New England winter.

Getting to hear Vuong’s “Aubade” felt like an appropriate way to enter into his work. The piece describes an encounter between two lovers on the eve of the Fall of Saigon and a silent moment in a city otherwise ravaged by the Vietnam War. The form of the piece, reflected in Vuong’s recording, makes the piece (though still full of movement) feel like everything is in slow motion. Vuong’s inclusion of staggered lines and his liberal use of indentation lengthen the amount of white space a reader must digest in order to reach the next word. This forced mental pause slows down the poem’s pace; movement here happens at the rate of snowfall. This effect is only strengthened by the dramatic irony of knowing that this poem is an aubade. As readers, we know the lovers will part with the morning as the city, and further out the country, is reunited. This staggered form appears elsewhere in Vuong’s collection as well; “Trojan,” (9) “Headfirst,” (20-21) “Into the Breach,” (37-39) and “To My Father / To My Future Son,” (57-59), among others, utilize this technique to create similar moments of slowness.

“Aubade” touches on some of the major topics in Vuong’s collection: love, violence, eroticism, war, even the “milkflower” (10) all feel maternal and evocative of the familial bloodlines that seem to run through the book. While “Aubade” was my personal entrance to Vuong’s work, the audience will enter Night Sky through way of a keyhole. “Threshold,” (3) the collection’s opener, recounts a scene in which the speaker watches his father in the shower through the keyhole in the bathroom door. Intimate and visceral, the sensation the speaker feels as he listens to his father’s shower song is described as “fill(ing) (him) to the core / like a skeleton,” the piece introduces the role that the body plays in Ocean’s work: as a means of taking in and giving to the physical world and other bodies. The body often acts as a ‘threshold’ through which senses travel. In “Threshold,” Vuong notes that this interaction is a zero-sum game, “the cost / of entering a song—was to lose / your way back.”

In other places in Vuong’s work, the body acts as a vessel for carrying the speaker’s familial ties. Identity is one of the key themes that Vuong explores in Night Sky. Vuong himself is queer and emigrated to America from Vietnam when he was a child. The speaker of “Telemachus” (7-8) describes his father’s face as “one I will wear / to kiss all my lovers goodnight.” Identity in Vuong’s writing can often be difficult to reconcile, especially under the circumstances in which one is conceived. In “Notebook Fragments” (68-72), Vuong remarks: “(a)n American soldier fucked a Vietnamese farmgirl. Thus my mother exists. / Thus I exist. Thus no bombs = no family = no me. // Yikes.” There’s a note of black humor in the hopelessness here: what can someone really say but “(y)ikes,” when acknowledging that without war, and the brutal destruction of a people and their land, they would not have been born?

Intersectionality is also important in understanding the multifaceted nature of identity in some of Vuong’s pieces as the different parts of the identity can often be at odds with one another. As a queer man, Vuong notes the manner in which his Vietnamese-American identity shapes his queer experience. Describing an interaction with a previous lover, the speaker of “Notebook Fragments” remarks that “A pillaged village is a fine example of a perfect rhyme. He said that. / He was white.” The lover trivializes the desecration of Vietnamese villages by turning tragic events of the war into a childish “perfect rhyme,” (and even making the statement itself rhyme with the adjective “fine”). Vuong hints at the dominant culture’s insensitivity regarding race, even in a group as diverse as the queer community.

It is through the body that one is able to perceive, and be perceived by, the world. Perhaps that is why Vuong’s work resonates with so many readers. He is able to use language to cross the somatic boundary that separates individuals from one another, uniting people while simultaneously recognizing their differences. This may be why, in a workshop with several other UConn undergraduates, there was such a diverse range of poems in Night Sky that resonated as student’s favorites. Vuong’s poetry stirs, makes one feel the bodily pleasure and pain of experience. Vuong’s poetry makes one “feel / this fully, this / entire, the way snow / touches bare skin–& is, / suddenly, snow / no longer” (85).

Vuong, Ocean. Night Sky with Exit Wounds. USA: Copper Canyon Press, 2016. Print.

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