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Oct/Nov 2016 Reviews & Interviews

The Native Poetry of East Hartford

Night Sky with Exit Wounds
Ocean Vuong.
Copper Canyon Press. 2004. 70 pp.
ISBN 978-1-55659-495-3.

Review by Gilbert Wesley Purdy


Buy now from Amazon! The photo on the cover of Ocean Vuong's Night Sky with Exit Wound was provided by the author. He is presumably the young child seated between his smiling mother and grandmother. Or perhaps the photo is the one referred to in an earlier poem, in which case the second woman would have been his aunt. The close-cropped background is perhaps in Saigon, Vietnam, where he was born and lived the first year of his life. More likely it was taken in the refugee camp in the Philippines in which he lived during the next year.

The photo is emblematic of Night Sky with Exit Wound, Vuong's first book of poetry. There is mystery. That mystery plays out in a largely female immigrant world. The trappings of life are spare. Vietnam is present everywhere, however much Vuong has not seen the land of his birth since he was one year old. Vietnamese was his only language until he was 11 years old. His grandmother's stories (themselves poetry) brought the country vividly alive before him.

It is also emblematic that the poems are in the English language that Vuong took so long to acquire, presumably due to his moving almost entirely among a small Vietnamese community. The few American products, aside from its language, in his poems, are so portable they could easily have been found in wartime Vietnam. The same could be said of his father's violence.

The few distinctly American locales in this volume only highlight how tenuously he is connected to them. But then a grandmother's stories are an even more tenuous connection to Vietnam. In a strange way, a small immigrant Vietnamese nail salon in East Hartford, Connecticut, where his mother provided for him by doing manicures and pedicures, is Voung's home country.

Even now the nail salon
will not leave her: isopropyl acetate,
ethyl acetate, chloride, sodium lauryl
sulfate & sweat fuming
through her pink
I ❤ NY t-shirt.

That and what is likely to have been a humble apartment nearby. The heart symbols and the ampersand in the passage are runic stylings from the land of the MFA into which he has traveled.

This would seem to be what Vuong means, in his interview with the Well and Often Press, when he says,

My Vietnam is transgressive, the Vietnam that rears its hideous head again and again throughout our human history; it is the Vietnam of the Middle East, of Troy and Rome, the one in our streets, our homes, and our minds.

Night after night, his grandmother has recited another story from the epic that is his history: the ancient history of a few close blocks around a nail salon in East Hartford. It is also a history recorded on the television newsreels and the many Vietnam war movies that have been so well done and popular.

Having no soil to grow in, these poems might be called "aeroponic." (One poem is made up entirely of footnotes.) Nutrients have had to be added to the poetry through the means hinted at above. The result is almost the realization of a poetry: a poetry that is the stuff of life, not about the stuff of life. The poems tend to portray a fragile world poised on the edge of danger.

          I didn't know the cost
of entering a song—was to lose
          your way back.

The methods are recognizably those of the prevailing MFA program—sometimes even in a paint-by-number sort of way—but working with such a rich lack of soil, and so fine a talent, the results are often transmundane.

Not all the poems are in one or another version of the first person Vuong has created. In "Immigrant Haibun" the voice is that of a mother:

The ship rocked as you swelled inside me: love's echo hardening into a boy.

Is the mother his own? Was there actually such a journey? Of course, neither question is important. What is important is how continually we are left unsure only to discover that we are in the place where he has lived most of his life: the terrain of his own imagination.

Vuong was not on that ship any more than he was in the Saigon of the poem "Aubade with Burning City," in which Bing Crosby's "White Christmas" plays over the Armed Services Radio by way of a signal to evacuate the city. Nevertheless, in his imagined Vietnam he saw the fragile detail oblivious to the mayhem:

On the bed stand, a sprig of magnolia expands like a secret heard
                    for the first time.

And the fragile detail of an immolation to pure spirit:

In the square below: a nun, on fire,
          runs silently toward her god —
       Open, he says.
          She opens.

A few seconds of the Zapruder film was where he stood on the day of President Kennedy's assassination, Jackie reflexively crawling after the pieces of his head:

       I'm holding
          your still-hot thoughts in,
darling, my sweet, sweeet
          Jack. I'm reaching across the trunk
for a shard of your memory,
          the one where we kiss & the nation
glitters. Your slumped back.
          Your hand letting go. You're all over
the seat now, deepening
          my fuchsia dress.

Still, the images here are so shockingly expressive that in the most important sense he was there.

His father is the subject of a surprising number of the poems in Night Sky with Exit Wounds, given how little a part he seems to have played in his son's life. The images, rigorously concrete as they are, obscure more than they reveal. The father subject of several poems is a father figure rather than flesh and blood. The end result would seem to be a myth of what a Vietnamese father would be: giver and taker of violence which he seeks to instill in his son, a heroic man, a stoic man, a man who somehow lives a romantic life in prison or in the barrio.

Vuong has so spare a life that it fits quite well with present poetical mores against the openly confessional and toward the elliptical. If anything, it might fit too well.

As with all 20-somethings, however, he has one reality that is immediate: sex. Being gay, this once again fits particularly well with present poetical mores. Being just more than a teenager, his handling of the subject is sometimes sophomoric.

Discovery: My longest pubic hair is 1.2 inches.

Being a poet capable of moments of brilliance, it can have all the shockingly fragile beauty and irony of a fallen sparrow.

My thrashing beneath you
       like a sparrow stunned
with falling.

As in all aspects of Vuong's poetry, violence infuses it. Only here the violence is real (however much it is emotional), not in newspaper or a history or a newsreel. The images, though fragmentary as the rule, tend nonetheless to be more direct. The pleasure of real danger is tremulous.

All said, the native poetry of East Hartford is a fine discovery. In Night Sky with Exit Wounds, Ocean Voung often impresses with the perfect image to put a poem over the top.

 

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