99th Discussion: Night Sky with Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong

Attendees: Asy, Pamela, Kenny, Maya, Timmy

All of us read the book, but the abstractness left us perplexed. Pamela said reading the book was like reading “random words strung together”. Kenny was left frustrated, as he really tried to find resonance with the collection; this ultimately marred his enjoyment of the book. Asy shared that the sense of fulfilment after reading was missing, since they didn’t get what the poems meant. Maya admitted to Googling his poems to find any interpretations of them. We collectively agreed that the book is an esoteric collection not meant for the masses.

There were a lot of things to unpack and decipher with this book:

night-sky-with-exit-wounds-alternate-coverIn reference to the title, Kenny beautifully decoded it as a collection of dark, unpleasant poems composed by the author as a means to escape. Asy added on, recalling one of his poems about stars being like exit wounds. Knowing that there are innumerable stars in the night sky, they opine that this can be translated to innumerable exit wounds.

We had a lot of questions when it came to the father – is he already dead? Or is he still alive? If it were the former, was he really shot? Or was it death by drowning? We concluded that the father was never in the author’s life, thus the poems were created as his way of yearning for a father figure in his life. This was the most apparent in Telemachus, the second poem in the book. The Greek mythology reference mirrored Vuong’s experience. ocean_vuong_mother_auntIn contrast, his mother was depicted almost positively, albeit sympathetically and in fragments. Kenny quipped that he is saving poems about his mother for his second collection. We were in the belief that the book is dedicated to her, and spoke about the book cover, which is a picture of Vuong, his mother, and his aunt.

We observed that the author’s poems, particularly in the first two chapters, talked about Vietnam, despite not having any recollections about his country of origin, and America, where he migrated to when he was two years old. This, according to Pamela, may be his way of problematizing being a migrant, torn between the two countries. We noted that he was still happy to talk about his roots, often with a sense of pride, even if his knowledge of Vietnam was through stories passed down from his mother and grandmother. We also drew some parallels between Vietnam and the author’s father, seeing as he barely knows either of them and yet he is curious to know more about them. Bleakly, Asy stated that it is natural to relate to something that has hurt you, even if indirectly.

Timmy pointed out how femininity and masculinity were portrayed in the collection, citing poems featuring men in dresses vis-à-vis firearms. Kenny joked that in regards to the former, men just like to be in drag. We did not manage to elaborate further on these two motifs.

There were also plenty of other themes presented across the book that we were unable to discuss further: homosexuality, sex and sexual innuendos, violence, religion, sense of loss, and depression. Recurring motifs that we were also not able to explicate include sky, sun, moon, stars, mouth, teeth, tongue, burning, falling, flying, snow, and ampersands.

As the discussion came to a close, we subconsciously had warmed up to Vuong’s book. Kenny was enlightened from the insights shared, while Asy said it best – that with something as abstract like poetry, it is best to sit down with other people and talk about it. Would we read it again? Most probably not, but we would still recommend everyone to have a go at it, at least once.


Photography: Adrian Pope

When asked about their favourite poems, Pamela and Maya chose Threshold, Asy picked Headfirst, and Timmy went with Aubade with Burning City.

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Filed under Family, Gay, Love, Migration, Ocean Vuong, Poetry, Race, Religion, USA, Vietnam, War

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