Photo: Peter Bienkowski
Ocean Vuong holds a B.A. from Brooklyn College and will complete an M.F.A. from NYU in 2016. His poems have appeared in Best New Poets, Harvard Review, Kenyon Review, The Nation, The New Republic, The New Yorker, Poetry, and The American Poetry Review. He has published two chapbooks, No (2013) and Burnings (2010); his first full-length collection, Night Sky with Exit Wounds, will be published by this year. Vuong is the recipient of a 2014 Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation. He is originally from Saigon and lives in New York City.
What a pleasure to behold how Ocean Vuong writes with such attention to the inside of our ears, the aural island. This original, sprightly wordsmith of tumbling pulsing phrases pushes poetry to a new level. His collection, “Night Sky With Exit Wounds,” forms an autobiography of sorts, tracing relationships with fathers, mothers, and lovers, and with a country that Vuong left when he was a young boy. The imagery in his work is often shimmeringly beautiful, but it’s cut through by intimations of violence and its after effects. The collection is a stunning introduction to a young poet who writes with both assurance and vulnerability. Visceral, tender and lyrical, fleet and agile, these poems unflinchingly face the legacies of violence and cultural displacement but they also assume a position of wonder before the world.
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. 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. I touch
his ears. No use. I turn him
over. To face it. The cathedral
in his sea-black eyes. The face
not mine—but one I will wear
to kiss all my lovers goodnight:
the way I seal my father’s lips
with my own & begin
the faithful work of drowning.
& this is how we danced: our mothers’
white dresses spilling from our feet, late August
turning our hands dark red. & this is how we loved:
a fifth of vodka & an afternoon in the attic, your fingers
through my hair—my hair a wildfire. We covered
our ears & your father’s tantrum turned
to heartbeats. When our lips touched the day closed
into a coffin. In the museum of the heart
there are two headless people building a burning house.
There was always the shotgun above
the fireplace. Always another hour to kill—only to beg
some god to give it back. If not the attic, the car. If not
the car, the dream. If not the boy, his clothes. If not alive,
put down the phone. Because the year is a distance
we’ve traveled in circles. Which is to say: this is how
we danced: alone in sleeping bodies. Which is to say:
this is how we loved: a knife on the tongue turning
into a tongue.
Read more work from the 2016 Whiting Award winners here.