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Ocean Vuong's poetry brims with precise, surreal and erotic imagery

Paul Batchelor reviews his Night Sky with Exit Wounds, plus new works from Adam O’Riordan and Colette Bryce.

Not yet 30 years old, Ocean Vuong has already won several major awards in the US for his debut collection Night Sky with Exit Wounds. It’s easy to see why. From its opening lines (“In the body, where everything has a price, / I was a beggar”), the book brims with precise, surreal, erotic imagery: “The dress / petaling off him like the skin / of an apple.” Vuong authoritatively lays claim to a range of symbols and tropes: hands and guns; words and stars; bodies kneeling and falling; petals and clothes or skin. None of these images and associations is unfamiliar, but we see them afresh – as one poem puts it: “Look, my eyes are not / your eyes.”

This is primarily because Vuong possesses a large and unusual imagination, but the road he has taken to poetry is also a factor: he was born in Vietnam and emigrated to the US after a spell in a refugee camp; he is also gay. Being a Trump-voter’s worst nightmare seems to have provided him with a unique and often comic perspective on Western language and life:

A pillaged village is a fine example of perfect rhyme. He said that.
He was white. Or maybe, I was just beside myself, next to him.
Either way, I forgot his name by heart.

Inevitably, given its ambition, this is an uneven collection. Some poems are overwhelmed by their subjects (in particular a mawkish poem about 9/11), and Vuong sometimes falls short in his reach for the grand Rilkean note. In “Into the Breach” the speaker asks: “But what if I broke through / the skin’s thin page / anyway / & found the heart / not the size of a fist / but your mouth opening / to the width of Jerusalem. What then?’’ To which the reader can only say, well, what then indeed?

But these lines are immediately followed by a more subtly ambiguous observation: “To love another / man – is to leave / no one behind / to forgive me. / I want to leave / no one behind.” Night Sky with Exit Wounds is a remarkable debut. Where Vuong is headed is anyone’s guess, but you’ll want to go with him.

In unhappy contrast, A Herring Famine, Adam O’Riordan’s second book of poems, illustrates much of what is wrong with poetry in the UK. These poems are both unethical and boring, sadistic and genteel, unambitious and yet pretentious. Almost every one of them has been occasioned by a stranger’s suffering and/or death.

Like a ghoulish Forrest Gump, O’Riordan always seems to pop up in the right place at the right time to appropriate the misery. Farm labourers, rioting prisoners, starving heroin addicts, W B Yeats – all owe God a death and Adam a poem. Take, for example, “Catalunya”, a three-part poem: the first part is about a random murder; the second is about getting some trim on holiday; the third is about staring moodily at the sea. How do the parts “speak” to one another? They don’t. Or there’s “Inner Harbor”, a poem that begins by telling us how Baltimore has had “two hundred / recent murders”, and then recounts some of the grislier details, before settling down to its actual subject: a dinner date with Andrew Motion.

All of these deaths, and the many more in this book, are invoked for no other reason than to make the poet’s dreary self-fascination seem significant. Line-breaks are often arbitrary, poems fall in and out of rhythm, and the syntax is repetitive, overusing the “x of y” construction as a shortcut to sounding poetic: “a smur of butter”, “the hutch-stink of the soul’’, “the tender vellum / of his hand”. It’s dire.

Colette Bryce’s Selected Poems assembles a body of work distinguished by the subtle, haunting music of its lilting yet short-breathed lines. “A Spider” begins: “I trapped a spider in a glass, / a fine-blown wine glass…” Characteristically, Bryce gives each syllable its due, sensitising the reader’s ear. The poem ends:

I meant to let it go
but still he taps against the glass
all Marcel Marceau
in the wall that is there and not there,
a circumstance I know.

Whether it is drawn from Bryce’s experience of being a gay female poet, or of living in Britain having been raised a Northern Irish Catholic, the poem’s allegorical charge lies not so much in its content as in the way it compels the reader to vocalise the mixture of hesitancy and inevitability by which it proceeds.

Never showy, always watchful, Bryce’s poems return to the parts of personal and political life that hurt. Her most recent work returns insistently to her childhood in Derry, with the checkpoint manned by “a teenager / drowned in a uniform, cumbered with a gun”, and soldiers searching the family home, “filling our rooms like news of a tragedy”. In “Heritance” she claims one of her characteristics as “Tact, to a point”. It’s a quality that has served her poetry better than it has served her career. Bryce’s excellence is hardly a secret, but as she enters mid-career, she is yet to receive her due. Her Selected Poems should help to rectify this. 

Night Sky with Exit Wounds
Ocean Vuong
Jonathan Cape, 79pp, £10

A Herring Famine
Adam O’Riordan
Chatto & Windus, 72pp, £10

Selected Poems
Colette Bryce
Picador, 117pp, £14.99

This article first appeared in the 13 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Maybot malfunctions

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Ned Beauman's Madness Is Better Than Defeat brings jungle fever to a story of cinema

The author's lustrous and smart fourth novel never quite coalesces into purposeful significance.

“We were in the jungle… There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment. And little by little, we went insane.” That’s Francis Ford Coppola describing the filming of Apocalypse Now, but it’s also a fair summary – give or take a few hundred pages of CIA machinations, mega-corp skulduggery and hallucinogenic-fungus consumption – of the plot of Ned Beauman’s fourth novel, a teeming shaggy-dog comedy of megalomania and obsession in which nothing and everything seems to be going on at once.

The setting is the Honduran jungle in the late 1930s. Under the command of a visionary director, a Hollywood company sets out to make a film (called Hearts in Darkness, ho, ho) on location at a freshly discovered Mayan temple. When they arrive, they find the temple already half-dismantled by a team of New Yorkers in the service of a reclusive billionaire. The Angelenos scuttle up the steps of the hemi-ziggurat; the New Yorkers pitch camp at the bottom. Decades pass and the two sides, lost to the outside world, evolve a demented micro-civilisation.

Or is that the setting? The setting is also 1930s California, where a studio magnate creeps silently through a mansion. The setting is prewar New York, where a playboy is kidnapped by goons at an octopus-wrestling match. The setting is Virginia in 1959, where a CIA operative called Zonulet sifts through a warehouse packed with innumerable spools of film. The setting is a hospital in Maryland, in which Zonulet may be imagining the events of the book after inhaling a deliriant hallucinogen. The setting is Borges’s Aleph, or Leibniz’s monad: that mystical point in the universe “from which all other points are visible”.

As the narrative moves forward and Beauman gleefully particle-collides his various fascinations – postmodern paranoia, Hollywood screwball comedy, occult mysteries, spy fiction and the real-life on-set horrors of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and the 1930s film serial The New Adventures of Tarzan – such interpretations flicker in and out of probability like quantum states.

Beauman is a sparkling writer, and his book bustles with diverting micro-narratives. There’s a murderous fugitive Nazi who persuades the camp that he’s part of the “German-American Alliance” that won the war, a mousy anthropologist who becomes a leader of men, a newspaperman who gets a Murdoch-style stranglehold on the temple’s occupants, and many more.

But the underlying order is symbolic. The director of Hearts in Darkness, the sprawling meta-movie at the centre of the novel, argues that all good cinema follows a simple rule: its narrative intensifies in five or six escalating steps before “giving way to a thrilling interval of weightlessness or flight, then returning to the status quo”. Represented as a diagram, this trajectory resembles a side view of half a ziggurat, which can also be seen as a diagram of a succession of people following in each other’s footsteps. For example, a novelist writing about someone making a film of a doomed expedition into the jungle. Madness begets madness in this novel, almost as if some conspiracy or occult order were being worked out.

Is any of this familiar? Narrative as geometry, with diagrams. Chipper 1930s banter. Funny but significant names (Poyais O’Donnell, which references a 19th-century con trick; Zonulet, which means “little zone”). Nazis. Contagious insanity. An octopus. An airship. A nightmare conspiracy that may just be a druggy hallucination. A few years ago, Beauman told an interviewer that the work of Thomas Pynchon has had “no impact on British fiction, really, apart from perhaps on me and Tom McCarthy”, but this book isn’t so much influenced by Pynchon as colonised by his work. In chapter after chapter, one can feel the shadow of Gravity’s Rainbow sweeping across the text like the spaceship in Independence Day.

Perhaps there’s a point here. Beauman recapitulates Pynchon as Hearts in Darkness recapitulates Heart of Darkness, and so the shape of the half-ziggurat is redrawn. But when a writer steers this close to his models, comparisons are inevitable, and Beauman’s writing, lustrous and smart as it invariably is, lacks much of the moral and emotional seriousness – the fear, the loss, the sorrow, the threat – that acts as a counterweight to Pynchon’s comic and intellectual games. The result is a novel of great intelligence and humour, cleverly structured and brimming with tricks, that never quite coalesces into purposeful significance. It’s a tremendous rainbow, but I’d have welcomed a bit more gravity. 

Madness Is Better Than Defeat
Ned Beauman
Sceptre, 416pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear