Exile wounds

Michael Freeman

Photograph : Ebru Yildiz

Night Sky With Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong doesn’t come with flak jackets and takes few prisoners. The exit wounds exposed are the injuries of exile, as the central voice — close enough and often enough the poet himself — examines his wounds, works out what hit him and tries to get beyond their scars and disruptions. The exile is grounded in a psycho-geography. So, do we treat these poems as something more than cathartic episodes in a solipsistic psychodrama?

The backstory, though it’s vividly foregrounded in poem after poem, is Vuong’s biography. Living in Ho Chi Minh City, his mother and aunts, with the two-year-old Vuong, were “requested” to migrate to the United States as part of “Operation Babylift” (enlightened benevolence or cultural imperialism?) for the mixed-race children of American servicemen and Vietnamese women. They ended up, in 1990, in a one-bedroom apartment in a public housing project in Hartford, Connecticut. Eventually he made his way through school and college, learned about the American War in Vietnam that his family had been pitched into, encountered canonical poets such as Chaucer and Milton, and became aware of his homosexuality.

Subsequently — and to some extent consequently — the poems in this, his first, collection fall into three groups. With allusions to the Homeric and Virgilian epics of exile as well as the Kennedys and the Green Berets, there are cinematic glimpses, sharply edited montages of his family’s recent past in Vietnam. The next section pivots on his early years in a deprived and fatherless family in the housing project. Then the book closes with a set of explorations, riffs, ruminations on the identity he’s constructing for himself as a gay American. But that’s perhaps an over-schematic synopsis, as his disruptive style and violent imagery seep through the porous sections.

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