A curated literary guide

Week #34 / 21st – 27th August, 2017

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Sunday Review: Night Sky with Exit Wounds

a poetry collection from Ocean Vuong

[ Copper Canyon Press / 2016 / 70 pp ]

My friends who own Night Sky with Exit Wounds caress the cover in awe, clutch it tightly to themselves before sharing the book with others, give it pride of place on their bedside table long after the collection has been read and reread. Ocean Vuong’s melodic insouciance defines the voice of the moment: this is a man who can write lines like:

An American soldier fucked a Vietnamese farmgirl. Thus my
Mother exists. Thus I exist. Thus no bombs = no family = no me.

Yikes.

From ‘Notebook Fragments’, as well as lines like:

It’s not too late. Our heads haloed
                with gnats & summer too early to leave
any marks.

From ‘On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous’. Bloodsongs, verses cut and moulded from intergenerational violence, from war, Vietnam and America. In an interview with Prac Crit, Vuong states that Night Sky ‘is a very American book’ and that he writes through the spaces of American identity. The collection grapples with what it is to be a product of such a melding, to write within these spaces.

Vuong has forged an epic out of his family’s intergenerational, intercontinental trauma. Like Walcott’s Omeros (another voyage into identity, grief and reconciliation of the self), he doesn’t just appropriate mythical Greek figures but defamiliarises them, allowing for other stories to take shape. Odysseus is traumatised by war, in Night Sky. The father figure is broken, but it is his voice which bathes his son in music in ‘Threshold’: ‘His voice -/ it filled me to the core/ like a skeleton’. This music is the birth of this book and perhaps of the poet himself.

Not enough has been written on Vuong’s formidable treatment of 21st century postmodern war: the way traumatised bodies are screened, filtered and endlessly reproduced until they become part of an iconography of violence. The narratives these images have, of course, depend on the dominating powers that be. Take these lines from ‘Self-Portrait As Exit Wounds’, for instance: ‘everyone cheering as another/brown gook crumbles under John Wayne’s M16, Vietnam/ burning on the screen, let it slide through their ears,/ clean, like a promise, before piercing the poster of Michael Jackson’. The tone here is almost at a remove, mellifluously blasé: violence has become image signifying some kind of foreign entertainment. You’ve also got ‘Of Thee I Sing’ on the Kennedy assassination: Jacqueline’s blood-stained suit is übermedia at this point, her iconography displacing the horror of the Kennedy administration’s actions as an afterthought. Their blood is also on her ‘white glove/glistening pink – with all/our American dreams’.

Vuong brilliantly channels the American dream/nightmare dichotomy in ‘Aubade With Burning City’. His masterful pace evokes the dread stasis, paralysis and slow-mo vision before the killings begin:

A helicopter lifting the living just
                                                                      out of reach.
The city so white it is ready for ink.

                                                                      The radio saying run run run.
Milkflower petals on a black dog
                like pieces of a girl’s dress.

An eerie stillness set to the horrifying tune of Irving Berlin’s ‘White Christmas’, used as a code before the start of Operation Frequent Wind. The full rhymes of Berlin’s song are eerily abhorrent when paired with Vuong’s verses: a dog’s hind legs are ‘crushed into the shine/of a white Christmas’, ‘The treetops glisten and children listen, the chief of police/facedown in a pool of Coca-Cola.’

Vuong’s poems ceaselessly rip into you without ever losing their poignancy. This isn’t new sincerity, but raw being: vicious, visceral life that aches with love, since Night Sky is a kind of ode to Vuong’s family as well as a celebration of the body and its bittersweet pleasures.

Visit Copper Canyon Press to purchase the book.

Reviewer / Alexandra d’Abbadie

Five Things with D. A. Powell

1. The last thing that made you smile.

Somebody’s poem. A student’s, which makes the event even more pleasurable.

2. A secret.

There are no secrets. Only mysteries.

3. The last thing you wrote.

An email. To you. It looked like this.

4. Favourite city.

Sodom.

5. What you’d place in a time capsule.

Donald Trump. No, that would be a space capsule. Whitney Houston singing “I Will Always Love You.” Betty Buckley singing “Tell Me on a Sunday.” Nina Simone singing “Don’t Explain.” Martha Wash singing every thing Martha Wash ever sang and didn’t get credit for, which was a lot. Otherwise same stuff as the Egyptians: some food, some jewels, a non-stick egg pan, matches, flares, a poem. The stuff you need for all eternity.


D. A. Powell is a short third person. This is his bio.

Bacchus, to the Dead Boy

a poem from Marilyn Schotland

You will always be born from the mouths of beasts

I often think about words and words-to-be floating in some endlessness, so discovering Occulum and its Lynchian daydream aesthetic appealed to me. The immediate tension between a named god and mortal supplies the delicious use of language and tone. Despite “dead” being present in the title, immortal humanity is created from lines such as “screams echoed across the mountains” and “memory…like wine into the ground”. Here, the mentions of “darling” is as acrid as it is saccharine. Even the poem’s hanging final line wavers between soothe and jab. ‘Bacchus, to the Dead Boy’ is a promising feat from an equally promising poet, and I look forward to more work that explores the “sugar water … mothers, maggots, and maidens”.

Visit Occulum to read the poem.

Contributing Editor / Hannah Cohen

A Habitable Place

a story from Jacquelyn Bengfort

Did you stare up at the eclipse this week to marvel at the cosmos? Even in locations outside the path of totality the eerie light was enough to alert the astute of a cosmic phenomenon—but, before anything seismic could shift, the moon spun back to usual orbit and we were left with the workaday light. Were you bereft? Jacquelyn Bengfort’s ‘A Habitable Planet’ can be your post-eclipse depression pick me up. Told in quick, focused segments of dialogue and introspection, Bengfort’s story about a couple preparing to colonize a distant habitable planet extrapolates our future abilities to cross space. In a universe where humans can do more than stare up at the sky with paper eclipse-glasses, what might we create? Bengfort has some ideas, a wry take on our ambitions and aspirations to transform into an ideal society. It could be that we bungle the effort—that humans will pack up all our problems and travel with them, but perhaps, as Bengfort allows, we will pack the best of ourselves, all our little joys. Either way—two minutes of an eclipse, years in transit to a new planet—it’s worth it.

Visit Jellyfish Review to read the story.

Contributing Editor / Reneé Bibby

Slipper

a poem from Maggie Smith

What I love
about the sea is its relentless
newness, the constant turning over—

This week I have a poem by Maggie Smith for you all. ‘Slipper’ reads like a photograph, illustrating perceptibly a particular moment in time, and while the imagery and sense of the ocean is quite vivid, it’s the place of mind that remained with me most from this poem. Not only does Smith draw out a sunny beachside day at the ocean, but there is something more behind all this description. Something more understated. The sense of repeating cycles:

I am becoming my mother here
in a skirted one-piece swimsuit,
my thighs glistening scallop-white
and tender, spreading in the beach chair,

the contrast between the sea’s “relentless newness” with the intentional, steady-paced, passing of time. The mind jogging to catch up with the body’s accumulated distances, the recognition of the transformations time makes of us. “I am becoming my mother here”, not simply a mother, “my mother”. All the ways we shift, we often forget to keep track of ourselves and who we’ve become.

I loved the final line the most. Something so unexpectedly apt can come from such ordinary moments, but what I really admired was Smith’s ability to craft a reading experience so similar to the act of discovering, of planning the impromptu, and creating something uncontrived. A momentary burr that catches, and refuses to let go.

Imagine if I could
wear my home and call it my body,
wear my body and call it home.

Visit The Adroit Journal to read the poem.

Contributing Editor / Joyce Chong

The Poorly Built House

a poem from Max Ritvo

‘The Poorly Built House’ by the late Max Ritvo was and is a hard poem to get through. In fact, I don’t think I’ve read it from start to finish without stopping and looking away from my screen at least once. Ritvo’s story is well known and deeply affecting. It’s impossible to read this poem without thinking of death and inevitability. It took a few attempts to get past this stanza, about midway through:

I think my dying has been about my belonging.
My body parts seeking where they belong.
I imagine somewhere, my soul is doing the same.

There’s not a lot I can give you here, reader, as my heart is low in the horizon after reading and living with this poem. But I hope you live with it, too. I’ve lost loved ones to cancer—just recently, a relative who I saw last summer at a family reunion, smiling and affable and tall; from childhood, a dear friend, the smartest person I knew—and the poetry (so much poetry) that springs from terminal illness is a blessing and curse. That we can experience senseless death in such heightened ways through our art is senseless, and it is salvation.

Visit Parnassus to read the poem.

Contributing Editor / Andrew Sargus Klein

Ghazal for Becoming Your Own Country

a poem from Angel Nafis

What I love best about ghazals is how easily I’m tricked by them; I often don’t realize the form until the very end, even though my ear recognizes the music, even when it’s noted in the title like it is here. Despite “bride” as the end word, this tone is remarkably somber as the speaker discovers how to become self-sustainable instead of coupling.

Our first encounter with speaker shown as the bride describes her as “soil, sand, and mud grown.” This slightly subverts our expectations of a usual bride—clean, presentable, drawing attention. But here, the bride is born out of necessity and grit. The bride can’t shake off the earth from which she comes, and it’s this sense of connection that permeates throughout the poem. If you’re already wedded, why not make your country comfortable? Why not adorn it with that which draws you closer to yourself? Even when family is torn out the picture, she honors her lineage by framing the portraits of “all the mothers gone” and testing milk on her wrist. We’ve come to the apex where the child has to assume the adult role, but we can feel both selves in the room: the younger looking toward the nurturers and the older waiting to nurture some child, but only finding herself. I’m drawn most to the image of the wood spoon over the boiling pot, because like the bride, it’s been carved out of the earth and tested, yet still able to hold its own.

The poem continues to escalate and complicate the ideas of the former stanza: “Burn the honey. Write the letters. What address can hold you? / Nectar arms, nectar hands.” It’s hard to burn honey and reach the caramelization point without destroying it because you have to hold it over the right amount of heat for the right amount of time. Yet you can’t reach the more intense kind of sweet without risk. Often self-care is just showing up for yourself and remaining present, even when it comes down to something as simple as making a sauce. The next line complicates this idea of very specific by implying that the speaker is more expansive than described before: “what address can hold you?” Having no single space or home or name subtly brings diaspora into the picture, but this sense of drifting can also allow for deeper connections because you’re looking for those ties, those pieces of yourself that have been scattered. Physically drawing out the letters makes one recall the movement, the sound, the history. Meanwhile, “nectar arms, nectar hands” continues to give us a vision of the speaker as attractive. As she calls the shards of herself back in, she’s also able to be poured out. Similar to nectar feeding different pollinators, she can sustain others with the sugar she’s built for herself, or continue processing.

Clearly the speaker “becoming [her] own country” is continual development. Most of the ghazal is laid out as a to-do list, yet goes beyond day-to-day reminders, instead spilling over into more of a lifework. With much space to rule over, there’s much to tend.

Visit Poetry Magazine to read the poem.

Contributing Editor / Nix Thérèse