War ruins and wreckage, international borders, and domestic spaces form the terrain of Ocean Vuong’s debut full-length collection, Night Sky with Exit Wounds. “Show me how ruin / makes a home / out of hipbones,” the speaker requests in “A Little Closer to the Edge,” a poem that foreshadows a domestic abuse narrative while simultaneously depicting the naiveté of lovers. Later, in “Eurydice”: “Silly me. I thought love was real / & the body imaginary.” These moments mimic the arc of the book—where love and longing yield to increasing awareness of the body’s fragility and the terrible consequences of violence.
The collection also spins out an immigration narrative, a fragmented documentation of a family and the converging borders of two countries, two continents. In “Notebook Fragments,” Vuong takes a more informal tone: “An American soldier fucked a Vietnamese farmgirl. Thus my mother exists / Thus I exist. Thus no bombs = no family = no me. // Yikes.” And then in “Deto(nation),” the title already enacting the poem’s layers and fragments, Vuong writes: “To even write father // is to carve a portion of the day / out of a bomb-bright page.” Vuong further weaves American and Vietnamese history in “Of Thee I Sing,” which reimagines the bombing of Saigon interspersed with the lyrics of Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas”: “The song moving through the city like a widow.”
The speaker’s relationship with his mother anchors poems like “The Gift,” which depicts the mother’s dedication to her son’s education despite her own illiteracy, and in “Headfirst,” where while the men carry dreams and the dead over the mountain, Vuong reminds us that “only a mother can walk / with the weight / of a second beating heart.” And in one of the most tender poems in the collection, Vuong writes to himself in the mantra-like “Someday I’ll Love Ocean Vuong”: “Ocean— /get up. The most beautiful part of your body / is where it’s headed.” Indeed, the collection, as it moves toward its conclusion, acknowledges the possibility that humanity’s violence might be worth the love found in the aftermath of its wreckage: “Because the bombed / cathedral is now a cathedral / of trees.”