I just read Night Sky with Exit Wounds, a book of poems by Ocean Vuong published last year. It turns out that a good friend of mine went to high school with Vuong, and she happened to be in the same poetry class as him. She remembers his poetry being “pretty raw” and asked me if it made me cry. I didn’t press further, but I had the image in my head of Vuong reading his work in this high school poetry class and the students weeping around him. With him.
It seems to me that most poetry is analyzed as if every word is spoken by the poet, in the poet’s voice. We ascertain intent as if that’s the reason the poet wrote what he wrote and there must be nothing else. I have a feeling this is because poetry seems impenetrable to many, even those who purport to critique it, but because it is written in languages we suppose to understand, we scramble when we confront what is not easily understood and instead seek to figure out what the poet means to do with these words rather than consider how the words feel in our own mouths and ears. Also, the voice the poet uses is not always his own. In a piece such as “Immigrant Haibun,” Vuong uses the voice of his mother. And there’s “My Father Writes from Prison.” And there’s “Of Thee I Sing,” from the perspective of Jackie Kennedy in Dallas, 1963. Many of these voices come from a past Vuong could not possibly have lived, and yet can bring so much life and presence to with his words.
Poets, it seems to me, are drawn to certain words for their sounds and their images. In Lessons on Expulsion, poet Erika L. Sánchez uses the word “sucking” a lot, or at least enough to get me to notice it. Vuong uses a colorful vocabulary filled with names of flowers and sprinkled with his native Vietnamese (though he was probably not old enough to have learned a great deal of it in his home country, his family spoke it at home in Connecticut), but evocative repeated words and phrases (images) include hands (my hands, his hands, a boy’s early hands, blue thumbprint, blurred finger), shadows, mouths (and tongues), bullets, knives (blades, sharpening, cutting). There is a beauty to the violent, and a violence to the beautiful.
My favorite lines might be these, from “Thanksgiving 2006”:
My mother said I could be anything
I wanted—but I chose to live.