A few weeks ago, I spent a lot of time emailing people at Copper Canyon Press lobbying them to publish a book of poetry by a Vietnam veteran. Nobody there deigned to mention one of their newly published books, Night Sky with Exit Wounds (96 pp., $16, paper) by Ocean Vuong, winner of the Whiting Award.
It is possible that they don’t think of it as a Vietnam War poetry book? The author, Ocean Vuong, was born in Saigon in 1988. He now lives in New York City. But almost every page of this book has reverberations of that war in his country that continues to produce literature.
The cover photo shows a little boy sitting on a bench between two beautiful Asian women, one his mother and the other his grandmother, I assume. His yellow tee-shirt reads. “I love my daddy.” And, indeed, this book is filled with daddy references.
Ocean Vuong’s photo on the back cover shows us a pale, slight young man. So I wasn’t surprised to read this line in his book: “An American soldier fucked a Vietnamese farm girl. Thus my mother exists./ Thus I exist. Thus no bombs=no family=no me.” A powerful statement of identity.
This small book is one of the most powerful of the recently published Vietnam War-related poetry books, ranking right up there with Yusef Komunyakaa’s The Emperor of Water Clocks, which we reviewed in these pages.
I would recommend Vuong’s poem “Aubade with Burning City” to those who doubt this is a Vietnam War poetry book. In it, the reader encounters a soldier who spits out his cigarette as footsteps fill the square like stones; a bicycle hurled through a store window; a black dog lying with his hind legs crushed in the dusty street; a chief of police face down in a pool of Coca-Cola; snow shredded with gunfire; and a red sky with tanks covered with snow rolling over city walks.
A helicopter lifts the living just out of reach. The radio says to run, run. “Don’t worry, he says, as the first shell splashes/their faces, my brothers have won the war/and tomorrow.” This poem is interlarded with lines from a Christmas song that begins, “May your days be merry and bright….”
Vuong writes about entry wounds, amputated hands, and Agent Orange, about Ha Long Bay in ’68, napalm-blasted wind, and a “brown gook crumples under John Wayne’s M16.” We get dead babies, too, from a Grandma-told story, “In the war they would grab a baby, a soldier at each ankle and pull… Just like that.”
There is much more in this image-packed book. The back cover blurb promises that Vuong aims straight for the ‘perennial ‘big”—and very human—subjects of romance, family, memory, grief, war and melancholia.” He does that and more.
This third-generation voice of the American war in Vietnam shows that an Asian perspective is worth reading. It also shows that, contrary to what we’ve been told, the young generation of Vietnamese, those born long after the war was over, has not forgotten war—and, in fact, they have been marked by the war.
The author’s website is oceanvuong.com