Ocean Vuong’s first collection Night Sky with Exit Wounds is remarkable for many reasons, not least the way it holds its contradictions together with such poise: violence and sensuality, family relationships and the Vietnam war, grief and sexuality. It is unusual for a poet’s first book to have a voice that is already fully formed, so striking, so casual, individual poems that are delicate and devastating, a book that feels intricate but with a satisfying sense of completeness. Vuong is a Vietnamese American, having migrated to America with his family at an early age; his family history is woven into the poems. The exit wound of the title, first observed in the narrator’s father’s back, runs throughout the book and seems to represent how violence is carried through generations. Vuong’s use of form is carefully considered yet breezy, and at times is stunningly inventive. Most of all the language, the language is rain-fresh, knife-sharp; it takes your ear in its mouth.
By contrast in #Afterhours Inua Ellams uses the poems of others to reflect on and refract the cultural differences between the Nigeria of his childhood and Ireland and England where he has chosen to settle. The poems he chooses (from Heaney to Dunn to Duffy) are included in the book alongside his own responses, which form a dialogue with them. Often incorporating the form, the narrative, and sometimes words or phrases of the originals, the resulting effect is one of hommage, cultural translation and transposition. It is a respectful cap-doffing to poets that have come before, an acknowledgment that Ellams is grabbing a baton and running with it. This is a suprisingly self-effacing concept, “I wanted…to show, in utter transparency, that I was not the sole creator of the work I produced.” I loved the cross-genre inventiveness of this book (memoir, diary, poetry collection, anthology). As well as its focus on the process of creating poetry, a process that more often remains hidden here is directly addressed and celebrated. As Ellams states, “ I hoped to demonstrate how poetry is always in dialogue with the world, and with other worlds.”
Flâneuse by Lauren Elkin is a creative exploration of cities (New York, London, Tokyo, Paris and Venice) on foot, in the company of female artists’ and writers’ whose work has foregrounded the city in their art. The female experience of walking, of an urban environment, and Elkin’s own contemporary experiences of these particular cities, are interwoven into Flâneuse. There is much to learn here about the act of walking and observing, about unknown histories, about the city as an artform. The book takes us down back streets and across main thoroughfares, back and forth in time and viewpoint, but there are also many other divergent paths that this book suggests: further reading on the art of Sophie Calle perhaps, or watching the films of Agnes Varda, before going back to read it all again. I borrowed Flâneuse from the library but it is a book I will need to buy a copy of, not least as a future travel companion.