Night Sky with Exit Wounds: Ocean Vuong, Cape
First collections are always mixed bags. There’s a sense of setting-out-of-stalls, of showing the world what you can do, of trying on different hats. This book is no exception to that rule.
There’s also a lot of “story” in Ocean Vuong’s poetry. As a gay, second-generation Vietnamese man whose parents were refugees, there is plenty of subject matter to be covered. So he opens with poems about his father, like ‘Aubade With Burning City’, about the evacuation 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 ...
The quotes from “White Christmas” were apparently a code to start the evacuation of American troops and Vietnamese citizens from Saigon.
Other poems are about the life of a gay man in America, and they are written in a fairly florid but basically realist style. The poems play around with various forms but despite the “exploded” look of the above extract and a few other poems there is no real fragmentation or cut-and-paste technique here. The poems are largely direct and reasonably comprehensible. He’s still exploring shape and form across the page and I think that shows both his restlessness and his youth. I hope he keeps the restlessness at least.
Ocean Vuong recently won the Forward first collection prize, and I can see why. He does write often very movingly about his subjects. He’s not afraid to show his vulnerability in these poems, but these are very strong poems. I look forward to what he writes next.