Will Harris reviews Ocean Vuong and Kayo Chingonyi

Night Sky with Exit Wounds published by Jonathan Cape (2017)
Kumukanda published by Chatto & Windus (2017)

Lost in many of the reviews and interviews to accompany Ocean Vuong’s debut collection Night Sky With Exit Wounds – focussing on the poet’s background, sexuality, appearance  – is the way in which the work itself resists what the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas calls ‘mere confession… [that] accessory of bourgeois comfort’. These poems might deal frankly with being the gay child of immigrants in an increasingly riven United States, but you’d get the wrong impression if you thought of them only in those terms.

Vuong’s poems regularly (and uncomfortably) begin with a pronoun – ‘it’, ‘he’, ‘she’, ‘you’ – whose referent is left floating. In one of the collection’s best poems, ‘Immigrant Haibun’ – told, as far as it’s possible to discern, from the perspective of a mother during a dangerous sea-crossing – the ship rocks, the water swells, and we’re thrown from a horizonless sky to a Christmas party, and back again. The speaker says ‘Sometimes I feel like an ampersand.’ The ampersand is Vuong’s master figure: a character (&) which precedes its naming (the word ‘ampersand’ is a corruption of the phrase ‘and per se—and’), just as so many of these characters – an absent father, an illiterate mother, Eurydice, Jackie Kennedy, and others – stretch beyond the horizon of their naming. Haunting each page is a sense of corrupted orality, a thwarted longing for connection.

In an interview with the journalPrac Crit, Vuong says ‘I didn’t want to recreate or claim my family’s witness’. Instead, the aim was to recast their stories. This distinction is important because, though not wanting their stories to be effaced, Vuong rejects the self-heroising mantle of witness (think of James Fenton’s heinous poems about Cambodia). Accordingly, the US edition’s front cover shows a photograph of a baby Vuong seated between two family members; their eyes are crossed out while Vuong’s are open and staring. Echoing the cover-image throughout is a blank frame (□) which, like the ampersand, offers a form of meta-punctuation, signifying conjunction and corruption. These are poems which, rather than presenting a window into the poet’s “soul”, challenge the voyeuristic expectations of western readers. Look elsewhere for bourgeois comfort.

Sometimes, however, Vuong’s own choice of subject matter and too-repetitive tone can cause issues. ‘Into the Breach’ features the serial killer and cannibal Jeffrey Dahmer, who, as it turns out, speaks much like Vuong’s other characters – that is to say, poetically. The writing is so fine that what’s being described starts drifting off like ‘Fireflies strung / Through sapphired air’. A lot of the poems also have unnecessarily stark take-home messages appended to them. In the case of ‘Into the Breach’, the portentous image of a ‘mouth opening // to the width / of Jerusalem’, becomes this:

To love another

man – is to leave

     no one behind

to forgive me.

In the context of what precedes it – an account of someone who leaves no one behind because their corpses are mutilated and consumed – this seems tasteless. Following the Dahmer poem is ‘Anaphora as Coping Mechanism’, where the speaker fantasises about the rain being ‘gasoline, your tongue / a lit match’; after that comes ‘Seventh Circle of Earth’, which describes the murder by immolation of a gay couple in Texas. This juxtaposition runs the risk, as in some of Blink-182’s lesser work, of yoking romance and physical violence by instinct rather than intent. Lines that break through – ‘My mother said I could be anything / I wanted – but I chose to live’ – sound second-hand in the wrong way: slogan-y, borrowed.

When sensation and sensitivity are allied, though, Vuong’s voice manages a bracingly intimate and loftily vatic tone. In ‘Threshold’, the opening poem, a man is seen showering through a keyhole, the water like ‘guitar strings / snapping over his globed shoulders’. This image – of worlds glimpsed and tenderness strained to the point of breaking – shows the best of what Vuong promises.

Where Vuong feels like a poet going places, Kayo Chingonyi feels like someone who has arrived. Kumukanda, Chingonyi’s debut collection, runs to only 33 (mostly slim) poems, but each carries a sense of expressive burden that Vuong’s work sometimes lacks (purposefully, you could say, a central poem of Vuong’s being called ‘Torso of Air’). ‘The Cricket Test’ – from the sequence ‘calling a spade a spade’ – is also about thresholds. The setting is precisely sketched: a cricket match, the ‘first week at upper / school, blacks versus whites’. The speaker’s team loses the match to ‘a one-handed catch’ and afterwards the changing room is

a shrine to apartheid.

When I crossed the threshold, Danny asked me why

I’d stand here when I could be there, with my kind.

Chingonyi skillfully brushes this micro-aggression against a larger geopolitical context, suggesting that it is in moments like this – when children believe in boundaries as real between people as around a cricket pitch – that structural racism begins. There’s something in the use of ‘shrine’ that’s especially shocking, implying that the apartheid both lives on in this changing room and is purified in its adolescent form. ‘How to Cry’ further illustrates Chingonyi’s mastery of telling mise en scène. This is its first stanza:

I’m going to fold as an overloaded trestle folds

in the middle of Romford Market and bawl –

the way my small niece bawls for her mother

when she leaves the room. In spite

of our assurances, already the little one knows

that those who leave might never come back.

As with Vuong, two strong images are juxtaposed: in this case, that of a folding table in the middle of an East London market, and of a niece who hasn’t yet developed beyond what Jean Piaget calls the “sensorimotor stage” (where small children can’t grasp that objects or people will continue to exist when they leave the room). There’s an associative link, in that both children and market vendors bawl, the scream only shifting pitch and context as it extends through a life (‘The Colour of James Brown’s Scream’, the first poem in Kumukanda, gives this howl a political valence, too). Chingonyi’s work is like that ‘overloaded trestle’, its lines sonically and semantically loaded, testing the boundary between giving way and giving support.

‘Alternate Take’ and ‘Proud Blemish’, the first about the speaker’s father and the second about their mother, carries on this theme and deserves special attention. In the first, the support given by a father is belied by absence – the ‘art / of negation’ – while, in the second, the poet comes to support their mother as her body gives way. In hospital, she returns to her

mother tongue, begs me trace

the steps of its music, but the discord of two

languages keeps me from the truth I won’t hear.  

The truth the speaker doesn’t want to hear is also one that can’t be fully understood, trapped as it is between the ‘discord of two / languages’. The mother returns to her mother tongue, where the poet can’t follow. There is an echo of T.S. Eliot’s Philomel here, who, having been violated and turned into a nightingale, sings with an ‘inviolable voice’ – a voice purified by suffering, beyond understanding. In ‘Andrews Corner,’ this theme is continued in Chingonyi’s description of a ‘night bus’s army of sanguine- / eyed ravers’ desperate for ‘inviolable sleep.’ Throughout is a desire for a moment in space or time – like ‘the silence between songs’, as Chingonyi puts it in one poem – which is sacred, incapable of violation; a feeling of pure ampersand-ness.

In ‘Alternate Take’, the speaker describes the sobs at their father’s funeral as, ‘of course, a jangling kind of song.’ Though young, they already seem to be at a distance from events, that ‘of course’ signaling a precocious level of aesthetic self-awareness. The speaker knows that their metaphor is inadequate, even trite – as clichés surrounding grief are – but nevertheless feels compelled to draw parallels; in spite of ‘discord’, to connect. And with rare skill these poems – genuine, heart-rending achievements – do justice to the strange music of grief. As Shabine says in Derek Walcott’s ‘The Schooner Flight’, ‘if loving these islands must be my load, / out of corruption my soul takes wings.’ Both Vuong and Chingonyi, loaded with the weight of corrupt polities and singing in voices pitched between places – the US and Vietnam; the UK and Zambia – know that there is no well of English undefiled, but no matter: the best of their writing takes wing ‘out of corruption’ by turning it into song.

Will Harris is an Assistant Editor at The Rialto and a fellow of The Complete Works III. His debut pamphlet, All this is implied, was published by HappenStance in June 2017

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