Vietnamese-born poet Ocean Vuong has been awarded the UK’s most prestigious poetry prize for his debut collection, Night Sky With Exit Wounds.
Among a shortlist that included Tara Bergin, Caroline Bird and Douglas Dunn, Vuong was singled out for what chair Bill Herbert described as a ‘compellingly assured debut’.
Herbert later added: ‘There is a mystery at the heart of the book about generational karma, this migrant figure coming to terms with his relationship with his past, his relationship with his father and his relationship with his sexuality. All of that is borne out in some quite extraordinary imagery. The view of the world from this book is quite stunning.’
The collection received wide acclaim for its original take on the Vietnam War, and its subsequent effects on generations to come. Heralded by leading critic Michiko Kakutani, for his ‘tensile precision reminiscent of Emily Dickinson’s work, combined with a Gerard Manley Hopkins-like appreciation for the sound and rhythms of words’, the collection also picked up the Whiting Award, the Thom Gunn Award and the Forward Prize for Best First Collection.
Born in Saigon, Vuong migrated to the United States when he was two years old having spent time in a refugee camp as a baby. His poems reflect his own experience of migration, that critic Kate Kellaway described as ‘a conduit for a life in which violence and delicacy collide’. Themes surrounding his sexuality and fatherless childhood also feature heavily in the collection.
The award was announced by judge Bill Herbert during a ceremony at the Wallace Collection in London on January 15. Commemorating the prize’s 25th anniversary, Vuong was presented with a cheque for £25,000, an increase from previous years to mark the occasion, supported by the TS Eliot Foundation.
The only non-white writer on the shortlist, Vuong’s victory supports a growing trend that is seeing more poets of colour receive widespread recognition for their work.
Vuong now lives in Massachusetts in the US, where he is an assistant professor in the MFA Program for Poets and Writers at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. He is working on his first novel.
from Night Sky With Exit Wounds
Like any good son, I pull my father out
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. Because the bombed
cathedral is now a cathedral
of trees. I kneel beside him to see how far
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, found
the way a green bottle might appear
at a boy’s feet containing a year
he has never touched. I touch
his ears. No use. I turn him
over. To face it. The cathedral
in his sea-black eyes. The face
not mine – but one I will wear
to kiss all my lovers good-night:
the way I seal my father’s lips
with my own & begin
the faithful work of drowning.