Reading Resolution: “Night Sky with Exit Wounds” by Ocean Vuong

14. A collection of poetry: Night Sky with Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong

List Progress: 23/30

I grabbed this collection of Ocean Vuong’s poetry off a shelf because I had seen snippets of his work shared on social media. Vuong has a real skill with quick, impactful imagery that invites sharing individual poems, or even stanzas. But this collection, 2016’s Night Sky with Exit Wounds, felt fairly inconsistent, or at least inconsistently matched to my preferences in poetry. For every piece that knocked me back on my heels with how incisive it was, there were two that felt wishy washy and ungrounded. But the pieces that stood out made the collection as a whole worthwhile.

Born in Vietnam, Vuong’s family fled police persecution when he was two and eventually migrated to the United States, where his father abandoned the family shortly thereafter. Many of the poems, told from a variety of points of view, explore his family’s story and his own identity, sexuality and place in the world. Some of the pieces come with quotations or footnotes to add context, and I appreciated the grounding of those ones. My favorite poem of the collection, “Seventh Circle of Earth”, involves a news story about a gay couple being burned alive in their home, and contrasting the blunt information of a crime report with the emotions of being the victim of a hate crime is lovely and painful.

“Seventh Circle” also represents the most successful of Vuong’s experimentations with formatting. It is hard to describe without seeing the page, but the poem is told entirely in footnotes to a nonexistent block of text. This formatting has a clear purpose and meaning, showing the life behind the headlines, and it is lovely. With some of the other poems, however, the strange format feels like the words are scattered at random for the sake of it. These formatting choices make Night Sky a collection that is clearly meant to be read rather than heard, and the times they pay off are quite affecting. 

At the end of the day, I don’t know if I absolutely recommend Night Sky with Exit Wounds on the whole, but there are some genuinely beautiful poems within it. My favorites are the following, and their presence makes the collection as a whole worth it, but I could also recommend tracking down these individual pieces. 

  • “Headfirst”
  • “The Gift”
  • “Because It’s Summer”
  • “Seventh Circle of Earth”
  • “The Smallest Measure”
  • “Devotion”

But taste in poetry is as subjective as it gets, so I am sure there are people who will eat Night Sky up from cover to cover.

Would I Recommend It: Yes, especially the poems listed above.

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