There’s a photograph on the jacket of Ocean Vuong’s debut poetry collection of a small boy sitting on a wooden bench. Encircled by the arms of two women in summery cottons, he gazes steadily at the camera.
The elegance is deceptive: it was taken when the family were living in poverty in a refugee camp in the Philippines, en route for the US, after being expelled from Vietnam. Vuong, the only child in the three-generation exodus, was two years old. A fellow refugee was bartering photographs for food. “That picture cost my family three tins of rice, according to my mother,” he says. “Each of us gave up our ration just to be seen.”
His debut collection, Night Sky With Exit Wounds, is the work of a man with history on his back, even if he has had to imagine some of it into being again. He brings a mythmaker’s insistence on being seen and heard to subjects ranging from the death of Telemachus’s father, from Homeric myth, to the fall of Saigon and common-or-garden masturbation. Already festooned with awards when it arrived in the UK, the book went on to gobble up the Forward prize for best first collection.
Observer reviewer Kate Kellaway described it as “a conduit for a life in which violence and delicacy collide”, while New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani was impressed by “a tensile precision reminiscent of Emily Dickinson’s work, combined with a Gerard Manley Hopkins-like appreciation for the sound and rhythms of words”.
The poet mopping up all this attention is a small, androgynous figure who radiated a quiet charisma when he took to the vast stage of the Royal Festival Hall, in London, for the Forward prize readings. “Well,” he confesses later, “I don’t have any jokes and my timing is terrible, so I thought the only way to get through it was to hide in the poems. I just climbed into the book and lived there for a while.”
In his telling, Vuong’s life story begins two generations before he was born, when his American grandfather, a Michigan farm boy who “wanted to be Miles Davis”, joined the US navy with his trumpet in his backpack and was posted to Vietnam, where he fell in love with “an illiterate girl from the rice paddies”. This translates, in a piece called Notebook Fragments, as: “An American soldier fucked a Vietnamese farmgirl. Thus my mother exists. Thus I exist. Thus no bombs = no family = no me. / Yikes.”
In fact, he says, his grandparents were married with three daughters when his grandfather decided to visit his family in the US, and was wrong-footed by the fall of Saigon. “My life and my mother’s life wouldn’t have happened without the war. But despite all this, two people loved each other, and the big lesson for me as an artist is that life is always more complicated than the headlines allow; poetry comes in when the news is not enough.”