Ocean Vuong, Night Sky with Exit Wounds (Copper Canyon Press, $16.00)
Robyn Schiff, A Woman of Property (Penguin Poets, $20.00).
Ocean Vuong’s extensive first book emerges one of the most difficult episodes in recent American history, the Vietnam war. Vuong, born in Vietnam, but brought up in the US, explores the legacy of that war not only in terms of its effect on his own life and the lives of his family. Vuong also, and perhaps this sounds a bit obvious, explores the legacy of the war in its effects on the imagination. For Vuong, these effects may involve relating the Vietnam war to the Trojan wars; a relation which might remind an Irish and British reader of Michael Longley. However, as I shall illustrate, Vuong’s take on this is as much part of the Oedipal drama with which this collection is shot-through. Vuong also writes piercingly about the nature of being a member of an ethnic grouping in today’s America; as he puts it in the poem ‘Seventh Circle of Earth’, ‘Look how happy we are / to be no one / & still […] American’. Dante’s Seventh Circle is the circle of violence against self and neighbours. Vuong’s Seventh circle of Earth refers to the murder of a gay couple by immolation in Dallas, Texas. Thus, Vuong, himself gay, places himself as doubly ‘no one and still American’.
In poems such as ‘Telemachus’, ‘Trojan’ and ‘Odysseus Redux’, Vuong enacts the legacy of the war in terms of Homer’s great epic. This enactment explores both the epic quality of the war, but also the smaller, familial dramas that Homer makes so poignant. ‘Telemachus’ begins,
of the water, drag him by his hair
through white sand, his knuckles carving a trail
the waves rush in to erase. Because the city
beyond the shore is no longer
where we left it.
With that first sentence, Vuong creates a huge emotional wellspring for the rest of the poem. That emotion is then opened out into a vision of displacement which allows the ‘we’ to apply to all who are exiled from that place. Vuong then continues to weave the familial with the larger,
I might sink. Do you know who I am,
Ba? But the answer never comes. The answer
is the bullet hole in his back, brimming
with seawater. He is so still I think
he could be anyone’s father[.]
In ‘Aubade with Burning City’, Vuong describes the evacuation of Saigon in April, 1975. The evacuation was signalled by the playing of Irving Berlin’s White Christmas. And Vuong again interleaves verses from that very well-known song with piercing details from the evacuation,
facedown in a pool of Coca-Cola.
A palm-sized photo of his father
beside his left ear.
As noted above, the sense of the Oedipal struggle permeates much of this wonderful book. A Father and a Mother are described as making love in a bomb crater in ‘A Little Closer to the Edge’. In ‘Always and Forever’, the narrator is given a shoe box wrapped in duct tape. After seven years, he opens the box to find a Colt .45 ‘silent & heavy’. But Vuong also dramatizes the struggle of his mother in America. Perhaps this struggle is metonymic, as they say, of a kind of Oedipal relation between the Vietnamese and America; a struggle in which culture itself is at stage.
This is an extraordinarily rich book from a young poet who is already able to make phrases dance and vibrate. He is skilled with prose poems, open form and the placement of short lines. And that technical range is allied with a hugely fertile imagination to create a book which is often unputdownable.
Robyn Schiff’s A Woman of Property is her third book and that experience possibly shows in the sheer length of her individual poems which stretch out, not only down the page but also across. Like Vuong, Schiff also nods towards Greek literature with ‘A doe replaces Iphigenia on the sacrificial altar’, and, later in the book, ‘A doe does not replace Iphigenia on the sacrificial altar’; which is the same poem but a long interpolation of text in the middle of the latter. But, whereas Vuong’s ‘I’ seems wedded if not identical to the authorising consciousness of the poems, Schiff’s ‘I’ seems hugely dramatized. The ‘I’ of ‘A doe replaces’ is the doe itself ‘reared/ ruminating/ in a thicket of/ sorrow with a beautiful/ strong of drool/ hanging out the side of my/ mouth like a loose/ phosphorescent/ tether.’ ‘A Hearing’, for example purports to dramatise a court hearing between the narrator ‘I’, and her ‘neighbour, a cult leader’.
Unlike Ocean Vuong, there isn’t always a ready lyricism at hand in Schiff’s poetry, although the shorter poems here sometimes do have a surface musicality. In ‘Dyed Carnations’, for example, the sentence structures are both shorter and tauter, and this combined with shorter lines results in a slightly warmer surface than is true elsewhere in the book.
in a chemical bath
and now they have a fake laugh
that catches like a match
that starts the kind of kitchen fire
that is fanned by water.
And it’s not simply the half- and full rhyming, or the parallel line structures which create ‘poetry’ here. There’s almost a kind of ironic poeticism in those mechanisms. But there’s also the metaphorical play in a phrase like ‘a kind of kitchen fire’ being ‘fanned by water’.
A ‘typical’ Schiff poem begins with a personal situation: ‘God knows how our neighbours manage to breathe. / No one is allowed / to touch me’ ‘H1N1’; ‘Be careful backing up,/ black truck.’ ‘Possession’. And Shiff then stretches those ideas and motifs in long poems which are often organised around the layering of an idea, with longer sentences building parallels through sections of poems. Into ‘A Hearing’ mentioned earlier, Schiff brings in The Oresteia,
to the minutemen and
responded as planned. Aesop?
I meant to say Atreus.
Motion to Strike from the Record Motion
thought they were animals Denied
There was a dog who recognised Agamemnon.
Thus, there’s a feeling of an outward movement balanced against an inward movement, where the trajectory of these poems often feel both clenched and open at the same time. The final sensation is one of something which is real and yet which strives always to undermine that reality. Her themes, if that’s what we are allowed to call them, often relate to ideas of violence; real violence or literary violence, such as in the princess and the pea, or somewhat more monstrously, the violence perpetrated by and meted out on the House of Atreus. Thus an atmosphere of rather more than unease permeates much of the writing in the very accomplished book. As Schiff puts it in the poem, ‘Siren Test’; ‘if poems aren’t for saying what goes without/ saying, I don’t know what they’re for.’