Like many, I’ve been eagerly anticipating Ocean Vuong’s Time Is a Mother, his second collection of poems following the success of Night Sky with Exit Wounds and his debut novel On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. But whether it’s a sign of our temporally unrooted times or my increasingly scattered mind, I found myself considering and experiencing these poems in and of themselves, without comparison to what has come before. There are familiar echoes of themes that Vuong revisits—about identity, parental relationships, language and grief—but it also stands distinctly on its own.
On a personal level, in between receiving this book and writing the review, a family member transitioned from this plane to whatever may be next, so Vuong’s virtuosity and vulnerability resonated in a way I hadn’t anticipated. But that’s the essence of Vuong’s talent: he alchemizes deeply individual experiences with universal emotions into what is both familiar and new. I recognize and honor Vuong’s personal trajectory—the scarring brambles and stunning vistas of his road, often so different to mine—yet equally I am ever cognizant of how similar we are, as sentient beings on this rock at this time, embracing beauty and loss, the past and present, sometimes in the same breath.
In one poem, he asks, “How come the past tense is always longer?” and the weight of memory is threaded throughout the collection, with readers led through the woods of a poet’s life through shifting narratives and temporality. “Künstlerroman”—which means “artist’s novel” in English—is one of the collection’s longest pieces, examining an artist’s life in reverse. If we can rewind our lives, section by section, action and reaction, watching the breaks become whole, the losses reinstated, would it, could it, impact how we are now? Is there a singular experience, a definitive Maginot line we might alter, or perhaps through language, through distance, even heal? Here, as elsewhere, the time in the title is both inexorable, yet a place we may still visit, through memory, and in Vuong’s case, through exquisitely-crafted poems.
Childhood—that country we must all leave, yet still contend with throughout our days—is also a focus of these narratives. Vuong notes that “childhood / is only a cage” and whether or not we realize it, we are followed by shadows of our earliest years, even in the light, especially in the light. To leave such scars behind often takes extraordinary will, and constant attention: “… I was a boy— / which meant I was a murderer / of my childhood. & like all murderers, my god / was stillness.”
The power of naming is also a refrain in this collection, including that of Vuong himself. How much is one constrained by such categorization? How much do names determine our reach, our dreams, and our possibilities? In “Dear Rose,” a longer, deeply moving poem to and about his late mother and her life, Vuong writes:
“…you said you named me
after a body of water ‘cause
it’s the largest thing you knew
The narratives are reminiscent of fables, mythologies, moving backward and forward in time and circumstance to find moments that might have foreshadowed what was to come; or where a shift might have made the difference. Yet don’t our losses and devastating lows and how we transcend them also form our essential humanity?
“my people my people
the fall would
but it only
made me real”
In “American Legend,” Vuong uses poetry as an oracular device as well as a form of mediumship. The obsolescence of a payphone in the heart of this poem, that which costs the speaker or the one who is on the receiving end, also offers a bridge between those from a distance, whether in this world or another. Does the call matter? Does it make a difference, even if there’s no one on the other end? When the poetry is this vulnerable and candid, it does.
a payphone in the heart
of the poem & called you
collect to say all this
knowing it won’t make
a difference, only
And what of those words and those chosen to deliver them? Does the wielder—like Prometheus with fire, like Cassandra with her sight—run the risk of being consumed by the act of writing? Yet the poet releases those in the chrysalis of the past through such narratives, such repetitions, and in so doing, may revise the future:
“…Words, the prophets
tell us, destroy
nothing they can’t
rebuild. I did it to hold
my father, to free
my dog. It’s an old story, Ma,
anyone can tell it.”
“Not Even” is a list poem as broad as the poet’s vast mind that mixes bruising statements with wordplay, truisms, as well as the title of the collection. Vuong juxtaposes wordplay—“I made it out by the skin of my griefs” or “Lest we forget, a morgue is also a community center”—with unadorned questions and statements that reflect an individual in search of self, experiencing the pain of loss, contemplating death and life, those fraternal twins that start and end us all, as well as the dark ironies of life, from “Beautiful Short Loser”: “Can you believe my uncle worked at the Colt factory for / fifteen years only to use a belt at the end?”
In a number of the poems, Vuong examines breakdowns—physical, mental—in a way that’s equally sensitive and straightforward, often in sentence fragments that replicate the emotional landmines through which the speaker is walking. The line between being in this life and simultaneously not of it is sometimes as thin as onionskin, and often unpredictable. In “Reasons for Staying” the speaker lists motivations to stay alive, such as:
“The words I’ve yet to use: timothy grass, jeffrey pine,
celloing, cocksure, light-lusty, midnight-green, gentled,
water-thin, lord (as verb), russet, pewter, lobotomy.”
Perhaps this stark knowledge also urges that we embrace beauty, new relationships and altered ways of being and being in the world. Vuong is ever a musical poet, with language and sound inextricably entwined, through voice and verse.
“I caved and decided it will be joy from now on. Then
everything opened. The lights blazed around me into a
and I was lifted, wet and bloody, out of my mother, into the
Yet these poems aren’t only focused on the enormity of grief; the journeys in this collection also arrive at a destination, a place of respite, a delicate self-awareness, with exquisite moments of peace:
“…In one of the rooms in the house the
man and I share, a loaf of rye is rising out of itself, growing
lighter as it takes up more of the world. In humans we call
this Aging. In bread we call it Proof.”
We need no more proof of Vuong’s importance in the poetic canon. With candor and sensitivity, marking universal experiences in a singular and deeply intimate language, Vuong shows us again how language both reveals and saves, for authors and readers. In the last lines of the collection, Vuong writes:
“Then it came to me, my life. I remembered my life
the way an ax handle, mid-swing, remembers the tree.
& I was free.”
The confluence of the violence of the ax, the connection with the tree, how acknowledging memory—sharp, sometimes painful, sometimes beautiful—can release us from our roots and allow us to soar and reinforces the power and vulnerability of this poet, in the prime of his work and life.
Time Is a Mother
By Ocean Vuong
Published by Penguin Press
April 5, 2022
Mandana Chaffa is founder and editor-in-chief of Nowruz Journal, a periodical of Persian arts and letters and a finalist for the Community of Literary Magazines and Presses’s Best Magazine/Debut; and an editor-at-large at Chicago Review of Books. She serves on the board of the National Book Critics Circle, where she is VP of the Barrios Book in Translation Prize, and is president of the board of The Flow Chart Foundation. Born in Tehran, Iran, she lives in New York.