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Ocean Yuong

Has any new American poet burst more powerfully onto the literary scene than Ocean Vuong with his debut book of poems Night Sky with Exit Wounds, published in 2016?  

Night Sky with Exit Wounds went on to win a boatload of the highest honors – a partial list includes England’s T.S Eliot Prize which is often referred to as “the most coveted poetry prize”, the Whiting Award which honors the most promising emerging writers, the Forward Prize for best first collection of poems, the Ruth Lilly Prize, and the Thom Gunn Award, among others.  Night Sky with Exit Wounds was also a New York Times Top 10 Books, and Foreign Policy magazine selected Mr. Vuong as a 2016 Leading Global Thinker.  Vuong has also been featured on NPR’s All Things Considered and PBS’s News Hour, and in The New Yorker and Teen Vogue.  

Ocean Vuong was born in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) – he is Vietnamese-American.  His Grandfather was a Michigan farm boy who joined the navy and ended up in Vietnam, where he fell in love with a Vietnamese girl, who gave birth to the poet’s mother and aunts.  After the war, the Vietnamese government expelled his family for being of mixed race.  For a year they lived in a refugee camp in the Philippines, then, when Ocean was two years old, they emigrated to the U.S.  He is the first literate person in his family, but he struggled with dyslexia, only learning to read when he was 11.  He reports that he “writes slowly and sees words as objects.”  His learning disability was not his only hardship: “As a slight, queer, yellow boy, it was easy to be picked on.”

Vouong’s family settled in Hartford, where his father quickly vanished.  Some of his best poems grapple with the absence of a father, which is tangled with his family’s war experience.  “My life and my mother’s life wouldn’t have happened without the war.  But despite that, two people loved each other, and the big lesson for me as an artist is that life is always more complicated than the headlines allow.  Poetry comes in when the news is not enough.”

Vuong currently lives in Massachusetts and teaches at UMass-Amherst.  He is also the author of a first novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeaous, which will be published in 2109. 

Vuong’s poetic voice is strange, strong, and urgent – like no other poet’s voice.  These lines from ‘Aubade with Burning City’ illustrate the riveting power of Voung’s song:

In the square below: a nun, on fire
Runs silently toward her god –

Open, he says.
She opens. 

These lines come from one of several poems in Night Sky with Exit Wounds that touch on the War in Vietnam.  ‘Aubade with Burning City’ describes the U.S. evacuation of Saigon at the war’s conclusion, which was signaled in a kind of code by the playing of Bing Crosby’s White Christmas on the radio – in a country where snow is unknown. 

Milkflower petals in the street
like pieces of a girl’s dress.

May your days be merry and bright

He fills a tea cup with champagne, brings it to her lips.
Opens, he says.  
She opens.
Outside a soldier spits out
his cigarette as footsteps fill the square like stones
fallen from the sky. May
all your Christmases be white

This young poet is fearless in claiming history as one of his rightful domains of concern and inquiry.  The other great theme of Night Sky with Exit Wound is his unique coming of age.  In part, this is a quest to understand – “to find” – his absent father, as in these opening lines from a poem called ‘Telemachus’:

Like any good son, I pull my father out
of the water, drag him by the hair

through the white sand, his knuckles carving a trail
the waves rush in to erase…

The young poet’s own emerging eroticism is another concern of deep and passionate urgency in these poems.   

I pull into the field & cut the engine.

It’s simple: I just don’t know
how to love a man

gently.  Tenderness
a thing to be beaten

into.  Fireflies strung
through sapphired air.

You’re so quiet you’re almost


The body was made soft
to keep us

from loneliness…

All of these themes gather toward a kind of grace a deep tenderness, which is beautifully summed up in the poem ‘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.
Don’t worry.  Your father is only your father
Until one of you forgets…
… The most beautiful part
of your body is wherever 
your mother’s shadow falls…

It may be the in Ocean Vuong, we are privileged witnesses to a great new poet.