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.

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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