On Poetry: Ocean Vuong’s Night Sky with Exit Wounds and the Means of Survival

I am afraid of poetry. I don’t read it often as I used to and have long since stopped writing it, but I’m envious of people who do. Poetry reflects all of my uncertainties. When I pick up one of those slim poetry volumes and flip through its pages, all at once I’m that awkward kid in a classroom again, raising my hand to ask the teacher, “Did I get it right?” As if there’s only one answer for how to read a text, as if I have to ask permission for how to feel.

Many of the writers I know compose poetry, and when they speak on the form, they often do so in the context of survival. I have to wonder why. When it comes to poetry, I’ve started to not just think about the integrality of communication but also on the importance of its form. Why do so many people claim poetry as their ultimate means of self-expression, relying on it to feel vulnerable and powerful and all of the polychromatic emotions in between? For me the answer lies in the odd balance poetry strikes between emotional accessibility and deliberate obfuscation. I would argue that both elements contribute to our survival.

Last summer I visited America for the first time. I was at a workshop in San Diego, and I confessed to one of my classmates, “I can’t read poetry.” She suggested I read the poetry collection Night Sky with Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong, so I spent the last few lazy days of summer at home searching libraries and bookstores for a copy.I read it and was amazed.

In her essay “emotions/feelings” in Poetry, Nova writes of being a poet, “I have to acknowledge the courage involved in gathering myself—my honesty, my hurts, and my triumphs—to share with people.” It is this sharing, I would argue, that helps us survive. For the reader, poetry grants us access to what others are feeling so that we can empathize with, and even find ways to ameliorate, the emotions others might be experiencing. So when the speaker says, for example, in “Someday I’ll Love Ocean Vuong,” “Ocean, don’t be afraid./The end of the road is so far ahead/it is already behind us,” I may not be the person addressed—I am not Vuong—but I can feel the tremulous comfort and self-defeat he might have experienced, and I am reminded that while we are separated by many things, we are united in our humanity.

We need this empathy now more than ever. I had the opportunity to attend Comic-Con for a day during my workshop, and walking outside the San Diego Convention Center, I had seen a mob with megaphones and signs condemning us of sin. My American classmates told me that gatherings like this were normal here when such highly publicized events like Comic-Con were taking place. One of my classmates—who, like me, was not from this country—raised her camera and scoffed, “Only in America.” But America, I’m beginning to realize, is not the only place of conflict, and such conflicts can and will build on one another, regardless of borders or boundaries.

I’ve been waking up with headaches—a tension right between my eyes—for the past few weeks. One morning I checked my Facebook feed to try to find some respite, but I ended up scrolling through article after article on the latest school shooting. When I told my mother about my headaches, she said, “Stop thinking.” But how can I stop thinking when I’m shown, time after time, how we fail to connect with one another; when I find something ugly taking place in every corner of the world; when my home is either slowly becoming unrecognizable or I have finally come to see it as it is, and I don’t like it? Lately I’ve been thinking, “Is the world becoming worse?” And, if so, “Will I survive it?”

As much as Night Sky with Exit Wounds invites me to understand Vuong’s perspectives on society, I also wonder about how much it hides his views from me. Nova claims, “It makes me feel so good to know that being a poet means that one can give so much of themselves—create so much feeling in others without losing any part of what makes them special.” But how do we avoid this losing? That’s where the obfuscating part of poetry comes in, since we also survive through self-preservation. What I mean by this is that if giving others access to what we’re feeling is a way of sharing ourselves, then keeping these emotions hidden is an attempt at keeping ourselves intact.

What, for example, do the lines, “Depending on where you stand/your name can sound like a full moon/shredded in a dead doe’s pelt” mean in “Eurydice”? The words are evocative, for sure, and I can infer as much as I want in terms of how they may relate to Vuong’s life, but the reality is that only he knows what they signify to him. Poetry can therefore be intensely personal for the poet; it allows them to achieve a level of catharsis that I’m not sure would be possible in any other genre. It also, importantly, requires me to invest effort into understanding Vuong’s traumas and, if not to fully understand them, then to respect them in the ways in which I might be contributing to and/or mitigating their exacerbation.

When I think about poetry, the speaker in “My Father Writes from Prison” comes to mind as he admits that “there are some things/I can only say in the dark.” There’s a lot to this line that I think overlays so well with our lives. We are each trapped in our own psychological prisons, constructed over time by the harm done to us by others and the pain we inflict upon ourselves. Poetry is the darkness here, revealing in some ways and muddying in many others. It’s where we can become intimate, because the power to either disclose or hide our blemishes returns fully to us. If only momentarily, we can forget the prison walls that separate us in favor of trying to learn what lies out there in the dark, and it emboldens us, makes us a little braver, rasher. Enough, at least, to believe that when we speak a truth, there will always be someone out there to receive it and feel it in the same way as you. Now we are finally communicating, finding comfort in each other’s company. And in this way, we can imagine enduring another day—we become resilient. In this way, we survive.

Kathy Nguyen

Kathy Nguyen was a publishing intern at Brink Literacy Project.


Art by DarkWorkX.