When Richard Siken’s first collection, Crush, was awarded the Yale Series of Younger Poets Prize in 2004, it won Louise Glück’s praise for its ‘cumulative, driving, apocalyptic power’ and was quickly shortlisted for a series of prizes, winning the Thom Gunn Award in 2006. In the intervening decade, few American poets came close to an equally well-received debut – until Ocean Vuong’s Night Sky with Exit Wounds sold out within a week of its release this April by Copper Canyon Press, which also brought out Siken’s second volume War of the Foxes. Published less than a year apart, the two collections offer ample ground for comparison and admiration.
Siken’s opening poem, ‘The Way The Light Reflects’, sketches the collection’s contours. From the first lines, it interrogates the connection between vision and reflection, reality and representation: ‘The paint doesn’t move the way the light reflects, / so what’s there to be faithful to?’ As poet and painter, Siken’s answer honours the art, with a wistful eye to what it cannot capture:
I am faithful
to you, darling. I say it to the paint. The bird floats
in the unfinished sky with nothing to hold it.
The rest of the poem, like the rest of the book, hangs in the fertile space between the outstretched hand and the canvas. ‘Some people don’t understand’, he writes, ‘They see the man but not the light, / they see the field but not the varnish’. What matters most, he seems to say, is precisely the moment life hovers on the boundary, becomes art. As he writes in another poem: ‘Something has happened in the paint tonight and / it is worth keeping’ (‘Dots Everywhere’).
What is it, then, that happens in the paint? Poems like ‘Detail Of The Fire’ and ‘Landscape With Several Small Fires’ explore the rich palette of our colour associations: ‘Willpower, gunpowder, concussive / thunder. Pink, orange, red, orange dreaming red’. Other poems give life to their subjects, addressing them directly: ‘O little birds, you flap around and / make a mess of the milk-blue sky’ (‘Landscape With Fruit Rot and Millipede’). In his writing as in his painting, Siken tries to see beneath the safe topography of things; ‘painting the inside of anything is / dangerous’ – and magical. Friends, lovers, and family pass under the painter’s scrutiny, where he tussles with them and his own impressions of them: ‘I troubled the shadows and silvered his edges. / What can you know about a person?’ (‘Portrait Of Fryderyk In Shifting Light’). Siken himself, we discover, does not escape this cross-examination. ‘History is painted by the winners’, he admits, and he is implicated in the act of depiction. This tension comes through most clearly in the heart-rending ‘Landscape With A Blur Of Conquerors’, where Siken finds that he cannot keep himself out of the frame: ‘I shovel the colour into our faces, I shovel our / faces into our faces. They look like me’.
It would be a mistake, however, to think about War of the Foxes purely as an extended treatise on aesthetics. The thread of Siken’s argument is deft and persistent – like a fox – and his language, woven with a landscape’s beauty, is itself a powerful, vivid celebration of all the things he claims he cannot describe about the world and about himself:
I am the wind and the wind is invisible, all the leaves
tremble but I am invisible, bloom without flower, knot
without rope, song without throat in wingless flight, dark
boat in the dark night, pure velocity.
Here, he finds common ground with Vuong, whose poems, though less self-consciously descriptive, are attentive to an astonishing visual universe, held together by the gravity of experience: ‘Snow shredded / with gunfire. Red sky. / Snow on the tanks rolling over the city walls. / A helicopter lifting the living just / out of reach. / The city so white it is ready for ink’ (‘Aubade With Burning City’). Where Vuong adopts or alludes to the painter’s medium (in poems like ‘Untitled (Blue, Green, and Brown): oil on canvas: Mark Rothko, 1952’), he shifts quickly between events, creating a more cinematic texture than Siken, but shares the latter’s knack for locating speaker and subject within the scene – ‘I stood waiting in the room / made of broken mockingbirds. Their wings throbbing / into four blurred walls. & you were there. / You were the window.’
If ‘The Way The Light Reflects’ provides a key to understanding Siken’s collection, Vuong’s epigraph – ‘The landscape crossed out with a pen / reappears here’ (a line from Bei Dao) – helps to unlock his. Because while Siken tries to uncover what’s really there, Vuong seeks a language for what isn’t. Many of his poems investigate vanished people or places with startling clarity, things he has ‘lost…with [his] eyes / wide open’ (‘Threshold’). What makes this remembering powerful and raw is the characteristic plainness with which he reports past losses (‘My mother said I could be anything / I wanted – but I chose to live’), paired immediately with jarring detail from the present:
On the stoop of an old brownstone,
a cigarette flares, then fades.
I walk to it: a razor
sharpened with silence.
In this way, Vuong allows himself to trace the edges of each ‘exit wound’ with painstaking, grounded care, venturing into abstraction only as a natural leap from the material: ‘If not / the car, the dream. If not the boy, his clothes. If not alive, / put down the phone. Because the year is a distance / we’ve travelled in circles’ (‘Homewrecker’). Although these are deeply personal losses, Vuong’s pitch-perfect approach, through the legacy of war and forced displacement, shows us why we can’t afford to let him remember them alone.
Together, Siken’s second collection and Vuong’s first demonstrate how these two poets have, more than others in their generation of young American voices, pushed the boundaries of a new, visual register, finding fresh ways to bring image and imagination together in language. They have developed a medium with enough room to critique their own, subjective viewpoints while holding their readers close. In a time where words are often used to spread fear and falsehood, we have reason to study their best qualities – care, self-awareness, daring honesty. After all, as Vuong puts it in his penultimate poem, ‘Here’s today’ – and here is ‘the room with everyone in it’.
By Theophilus Kwek
Night Sky with Exit Wounds, Ocean Vuong, Copper Canyon Press, 2016, $16
War of the Foxes, Richard Siken, Copper Canyon Press, 2015, $17