Poetry Review: Ocean Vuong and Claudia Rankine

Poetry collections by Claudia Rankine and Ocean Vuong

I found both Ocean Vuong’s collection Night Sky with Exit Wounds and Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric to be equally intense and unsettling, though written in completely different styles. As part of my MA in Creative Writing, I get to study a variety of poetry collections which don’t seem, on the surface, to have much in common. But through our seminar discussions we often find links and patterns, connections and contrasts that you wouldn’t see unless you spent so much time honing in on the craft of writing, searching for the logic behind the art.

Both collections have, at their core, a focus on identity and the construction of self. Ocean Vuong, (who was born in Vietnam, and fled with his family as a refugee to the US at the age of two) appears to construct a kind of mythology for himself in the first part of the book, centred around his family’s history in Vietnam. ‘Aubade with Burning City’ is particularly poignant – an interweaving of lines from the song ‘White Christmas’ amidst the terror and fear of war, and the intimacy of lovers, inspired by the surreal fact that in 1975 the song was played on the radio as a signal to begin the evacuation of Saigon:

From 'Aubade with Burning City' by Ocean Vuong

The broken lines spread across the page, and the white / black / red imagery give the poem a filmic intensity, as if we observe with the poet, from a distance. This is echoed in ‘Self-Portrait as Exit Wounds’ which moves quickly through a series of scenes that cascade into each other – memories and stories…

the refugee camp sick with smoke & half-sung

hymns, a shack rusted black & lit with Bà Ngoại’s
last candle, the hogs faces we held in our hands

It is as if the bullet is forging its way through all these scenes, ending finally with a precarious choice – to construct an identity as a Vietnamese immigrant, but also as an American:

Yes – let me believe I was born
to cock back this rifle, smooth & slick, like a true

Charlie, like the footsteps of ghosts misted through rain
as I lower myself between the sights – & pray

that nothing moves.

Claudia Rankine’s collection is made up of prose poems, scripts and images. It is extremely unsettling, presenting account after account of racism in action – often subtle, or half-hidden beneath a veneer of respectability, emerging out of nowhere from close friends, neighbours and those in positions of authority. But it is also about identity, interrogating what it means to be both black and American. It begins with the notion of being invisible, an image which recurs later in the book, and continues with shocking and demoralising encounters such as this one:

Standing outside the conference room, unseen by the two men waiting for the others to arrive, you hear one say to the other that being around black people is like watching a foreign film without translation. Because you will spend the next two hours around the round table that makes conversing easier, you consider waiting a few minutes before entering the room.

There is also a long narrative sequence which focuses on Serena Williams, using analytical and matter-of-fact language to assess the reason for her outburst at the Women’s Open final in 2009, as the outpouring of pent-up anger after years of being treated differently. The style here is essay-like, using simple language, presenting facts and quotes, without emotion, which has the effect of making it more intense, as Rankine questions the impact of racism on a person’s identity:

…Serena’s frustrations, her disappointments, exist within a system you understand not to try to understand in any fair-minded way because to do so is to understand the erasure of the self as systemic, as ordinary. For Serena, the daily diminishment is a low flame, a constant drip. Every look, every comment, every bad call blossoms out of history, through her, onto you.

Her use of second person throughout the collection creates a sense of dislocation, forcing you to see the world through the eyes of someone else, but also playing with this sense of identity and racial antagonism as something shared, something that cannot be avoided or overlooked. In fact, what the book ultimately shows is the inevitability of how a series of small, almost inconsequential events build up over time, leading to horrific murders, tragic misunderstandings and violent atrocities. Here is a film clip of Claudia Rankine discussing this aspect of her work. And here is a film version of her poem ‘Stop and Frisk’ made in collaboration with her husband John Lucas:

Both collections are expertly crafted, using language to question, to construct and to reflect the harsh realities of the world in which we live.

Night Sky with Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong is published by Cape.

Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine is published by Graywolf Press.