In May of 2016 Ocean Vuong’s first full length collection of poetry, Night Sky With Exit Wounds was released by Copper Canyon Press. The book has since received swaths of rave reviews and a number of prestigious awards including the Whiting Award, the Forward Prize, and the Thom Gunn Award. Despite the relative media buzz created by the book, it only came to me a year after its initial release when my friend read me the poem “Thanksgiving 2006.” I started reading my own copy this past June and finished it last week.
This previous summer I made the promise to myself to read more poetry. Like many, I felt a certain anxiety when it came to reading poetry. This anxiety had much to do with a swarm questions I felt completely unequipped to answer: how can I tell when poetry is good? How do I talk about poetry? What am I supposed to get out of this? But beyond these basic concerns I realized that my primary source of anxiety was a fear that I didn’t know how to read poetry.
This statement may sound silly. I can read. I’m in the final year of completing an English Literature and philosophy double major. But my studies have centered on fiction; lots and lots of prose. I’m talking about a hundred plus pages a day of reading. I admit this might sound like a statement of ill-conceived literary-braggadocio, but I implore you to see it as an answer to why I felt so anxious about reading poetry. If you assigned a daily mass of prose and or scholarship, not to mention balancing that mass with classes and basic human necessities like eating, then you are bound to (actually, you are expected to) become a bit of a reading machine. It is this necessity for mechanical efficiency that I cite as the source of my anxiety over how to read poetry.
Poetry is not meant to be read at a pace of one-hundred pages a day, at least not for me. As and undergrad you don’t have time to read deliberately. Poetry on the other hand, needs to be read deliberately; Ocean Vuong’s poetry is no exception to this rule. His style encompasses both the experimental and the traditional. The white spaces demand deliberate reading almost as much as his eye for juxtaposition and his talent for striking enjambment. In an interview with PBS News Hour’s Corinne Segal, Vuong discusses the power of white space: “I often think that, particularly in this country and in the West in general, we often look at empty space, we look at silence, as a sort of death, a sort of weakness…But I think the practice of poetry teaches us that silence and emptiness and space in general is actually quite potent.”
Over the summer I would read one of Vuong’s poems every couple of days, about two pages of reading every two days, not including re-readings. While the task of reading deliberately is quite different than that of attaining an undergraduate degree in literature, it is no less demanding. Thankfully, Vuong’s poetry turns this task into a pleasure. In “Torso of Air” the speaker commands readers’ attention with an insouciance that makes its power seem unfair: “Suppose you do change your life. / & the body is more than/ a portion of night—sealed/ with bruises.” These lines do not beg to be read again because they do not need to beg; I will read them over and over and over again.
I could describe to you the variety of forms that Vuong’s poem’s inhabit, the way he turns a newspaper clipping about a hate crime into a love narrative told completely in footnotes. I could tell you about the manner in which he navigates a family history of war and trauma by juxtaposing lines from Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas” with images of the Fall of Saigon. I could do these things, but probably not as well as the numbers of experienced (and paid) writers and journalists who already have done so online. But if the point of a book review (which is, apparently, what this is) is to tell readers whether or not they should read the book, then yes; you should read Night Sky With Exit Wounds. Right away.