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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

Terry Notary's simian appearance as performance artist Oleg in The Square
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Ruben Östlund’s film The Square hammers home the point that we are all still animals

 Each thread and simian guest star shows how little distance there is between the civilised and the primitive.

Yasmina Reza’s play Art, about three friends whose closeness is threatened when one of them spends a fortune on an entirely white painting, offered audiences a series of packaged talking points (Does objective taste exist? What is art?) for their post-theatre meal. Ruben Östlund’s film The Square, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes last year, serves the same function. Before the first scene is over, the Stockholm curator Christian (Claes Bang), a vision of metropolitan spiffiness in his red-framed glasses, has already wondered whether an ordinary bag placed in a gallery would qualify as art. In his current exhibition is a room filled with piles of gravel. A visitor pokes his head in, decides there’s nothing worth investigating, then leaves. We’ve all done it.

Like the canvas in Reza’s play, there is a catalyst for disorder here: the blue neon square set into the gallery’s courtyard. It is conceived as “a sanctuary of trust and caring” but its arrival throws everyone’s behaviour into sharp relief. A woman screams for help as she is pursued by an unseen aggressor, prompting everyone around her to become more than usually engrossed in their phones. Charity workers ask commuters whether they would like to save a human life, only to be given the brush-off. Christian’s relationship with poverty is squeamish. He buys a sandwich for a homeless woman. “No onions,” she says. “Pick them out yourself,” he snaps, incredulous to find that beggars can also be choosers.

His downfall, which starts after he hatches a cockamamie scheme to retrieve his stolen wallet and phone by leafleting the housing estate where he believes the thieves are hiding, is the thread on which the film’s provocative episodes are hung. Each one, such as the gallery chef flying into a rage because no one wants to hear about his balsamic reduction, shows how little distance there is between the civilised and the primitive. A series of simian guest stars, real and pretend, make cameo appearances to hammer home the point that we are all still animals, no matter how many private views we attend. These include the performance artist Oleg (Terry Notary), whose confrontational appearance imitating an ape at a black-tie dinner – not just scene-stealing but film-stealing – exposes the instincts of the herd to conform, even if that means ignoring violence taking place at the next table.

That sequence crystallises ideas that in other parts of the film feel distinctly wishy-washy. Jibes about pretentious artists (a cameo from Dominic West) or crass advertising executives smack of the contrived bugbears of clickbait columnists – what next, jokes about quinoa served on slates? And a section of the film about a bad-taste campaign to promote the neon square will seem penetrating only to viewers who have never considered that ad agencies might stir up controversy for publicity purposes.

Östlund is sharper when he focuses on the discord beneath everyday social interactions, using sound and camerawork to disrupt supposedly simple scenes. He prefers when shooting a conversation, for instance, to linger too long on one participant, rather than cutting back and forth between them, so that we begin to interrogate and mistrust the face we’re looking at. Stand-offs between Christian and the journalist Anne (Elisabeth Moss), including an excruciating argument over a condom, show this technique at its most blissfully torturous.

He is a director who is never more comfortable than when he is making audiences squirm, as he did in Force Majeure, in which a man neglects his family but not his phone when fleeing danger. But the situation in The Square, which escalates to the point where Christian must ignore a child’s suffering in order to safeguard his own existence, would have greater moral force if the film showed any interest in its poorer characters as something other than lightning rods for middle-class complacency.

The Square is undeniably entertaining, though its lasting use may be to demonstrate that movies can have the same effect as popping a coin in the collecting tin. Having seen the film, you can rest easy knowing you’ve already given. You’ve done your guilt for this week.

The Square (15)
dir: Ruben Östlund

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game