Any review I generate here is not going to do this book justice. At all. Ever. If you can stand that idea, then keep reading.
I know that Copper Canyon Press produces again and again significant and deeply meaningful poetry collections, but Ocean Vuong’s poetry in Night Sky With Exit Wounds is like nothing I’ve read before. I went through some Goodreads reviews to see if everyone else thought this was fatal magic like I did, but there are some pretty critical men reviewers. I found that kind of interesting because, like I’ve talked about in other blogs, I always wonder how much who we are when we come to a book impacts our feelings about said book. Obviously, I have only ever read this book as a late-twenties-white-female-fan-of-beautiful-words. No, seriously, when the guy at the desk next to me asked me what kind of books I read last week I said, “the ones with pretty words.” I think I lost all credibility in that moment, but there’s really no other definition. I could try to be more thoughtful with it, but what’s the use when I could be spending that time reading poetry like Ocean Vuong’s.
This one, up here, was my favorite review.
That’s the funny thing about reviews. I loved this book, I wanted to eat it and share it with everyone I knew who would just “get it.” I underlined hundreds of lines, wrote six pages of notes, was inspired to write poems about my grandfather on my mother’s side, and have post-its galore sticking neon from the pages. I have a tender spot for poetry about heritage because in my long list of “writing territories” I write a lot, and I mean A LOT about womanhood, generations, passing down, and my grandmother. Lately, I’ve been writing about my Dad, but my grandmother, the place that she’s buried, and what I can remember of her in the hospital after her stroke come up often on the page.
But reviews are sometimes more about the person who read the book than the actual book. If you read them seriously, if you devolve into a book blog spiral the same way you can rabbit hole on X-factor videos, you can learn about a lot about people, specifically bookish people. Sure, we have things in common like a lot of us prefer cats, or we drink enough coffee to not mind it black, or when we get overwhelmed we are in desperate need of pockets of quiet, but in reviewing books we are wholly ourselves.
I’ve never read a book review that didn’t have the voice of the person who wrote it. Whether that be scene child, literature critic, NY shower curtain separated apartment dweller, or me, that girl who goes on tangents that I find a little funny, like quips.
Lately, on Twitter, I’ve been seeing people attacked for their reviews. For all kinds of things about books, but most recently, for not liking the voice of a novel. The reviewer used some choice language and called the book’s language “slang.” Someone with a follower count above 500 read it and a bunch of people decided they would “educate” the blogger through harassment about their knowledge of AAVE. (I’m really not sure AAVE is even the correct term for the colloquialism in this book because I have no idea what the book was). Whether the reviewer was correct or not, their opinion is now only solidified by the swarm of others who join in on the bullying.
When someone calls them out on it (which wasn’t me by the way, but should have been), they passive aggressively discuss how there’s a difference between being “critical” and “harassing.” (I know, I realize by talking around it I’m being passive aggressive right now too). The thing that bothers me the most about this is that when confronted, the Twitter mob will say things like, “I’m uncomfortable and I’m hurting by what was said so if she feels just an ounce of the my hurt as a POC, then I’m sorry, but I don’t regret it.”
I get that. But I also get that my Mom always told me “two wrongs don’t make a right.” I get that literature needs diverse books (DUH). I get that readers want books to be both mirrors and windows and that the amount of white authors, and white people on covers far out number that of any other race. It’s actually pretty disgusting. This makes me desperately sad. As a reader, I try to support publishers that support diversity. I buy books about the experiences our world is facing so I can better understand how to help and when to stay quiet (shut up and listen). I read, more than anything else, to be culturally responsible.
Thus, Ocean Vuong. Thus, Night Sky with Exit Wounds. Thus, the other side of the face of the Vietnam War. Because war always has a face and it’s always bleeding no matter what side you’re on. And those that win, they pronounce that win in the books of history and own not just the “win,” but the content, the stories, the shape of the culture behind that win. This has led us to where we are today. I don’t believe that by capturing a snip-it of a review and calling someone a racist on Twitter, and encouraging others to do the same helps people heal or understand. I also don’t believe most people go into the world hoping that they can expose their own ignorance, their own racism, their own blatant disrespect for other human beans. I believe people, at their core, understand like a solid 3% of what other people, like them or not, go through on a daily basis.
We were all brought up to believe something. Given a life, we are able to either uphold or upend those beliefs. It is our choice whether that comes from books, or experiences, or understanding a counter culture, or holding tight to a historical wrong, or writing our way out of all of it. I think we have to remember that people aren’t choosing to be assholes (most of the time). Now, some people, yep, full throttle douche canoes, but most people just have no understanding of your uncomfortable, your misunderstanding, your belittlement, your poor treatment. So, to educate, recommend them a book. Recommend them a song or its lyrics. Point them towards the most truthful perspective of the history they don’t understand.
Hate that authors who write bisexual characters always use “likes girls and guys?” Then email them, email the publisher, write a letter, talk more openly so that people hear the right thing more often. Hate that a chick says there could be no characters with disabilities in Lord of the Flies because that wouldn’t work? Write a new chapter on Scribd, on Live Journal, on your blog. Make the case that Piggy wasn’t able-bodied. Write a book with characters who live in the real world and not a bubble of it. Talk to someone at school, at lunch, at work, in the street that isn’t able-bodied and learn their perspective.
So, here. Here is Ocean Vuong’s poetry collection. Here is a collection of poems dedicated to a heritage, a gene pool, and a man who loves other men, and his life shone back to him in a notebook. Here is a life on a page, like every life, that’s worth reading. And it’s beautiful. The repetition, the word play, the imagery, I couldn’t even breathe sometimes while I was reading.
I didn’t even realize that I was holding my breath.
I’m going to link to some of his poems down here. And then I’m going to expect you to buy this book from Copper Canyon. Once you’ve read through every page like its a track slick with grease, I want you to read each one slowly. Then, I want to talk to you about it in the comments because I just don’t have the “stuff” to even review this one.
- Someday I’ll Love Ocean Vuong (New Yorker)
- Aubade with a Burning City (Poetry Magazine)
- Home Wrecker (Line Break)
Because the middle-aged white guys didn’t love this book, I went through the recommendations they made in their reviews. And I will read them (Sarah Howe and Andrew McMillian). Because maybe it’s me that’s missing something about Vuong and in order to justify that it’s not, I’m going to read their recommendations. At the end of the day, my life is about how well I understood, cared for, and tended to other people. So, I’m going to do that with as much respect as I can muster.
I also have A LOT of feelings about this article, but they’re probably for a whole other blog. If in our need to rectify histories, we discount other histories that impact the histories we’re trying to protect, then what the hell?