Time Is a Mother
Ocean Vuong’s work is replete with entrances, openings, doors. In his first poetry collection, Night Sky with Exit Wounds (2016), stars are “Little centuries opening just long enough for us to slip through.” In his novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous (2019), the protagonist is always stepping or pushing or running through doors – “ajar, revealing the glow of a clamshell night”.
It’s possible to map Vuong’s oeuvre through loss: to say that Night Sky merely collects a trace of his father, that On Earth loops through the loss of his first love, Trevor, or that his newest collection, Time Is a Mother (2022), circles around the death of his mother. But to lose something, one first must hold it. In Time Is a Mother, Vuong makes space for this holding; grief does not close the door. The collection begins: “Not an answer but / an entrance the shape of / an animal. Like me.” The entrance widens. We step through.
The collection sits in tension with the fact of death: always aching against yet inevitably arcing towards its inevitability. In “Toy Boat”, dedicated to Tamir Rice, memory shifts against time “as if the seconds / could be entered / & never left”. In “Künstlerroman” Vuong walks backwards, rewinding his life, slowing down a memory of his father beating his mother – “His father’s fist retracts from her nose, whose shape realigns like a fixed glitch. If I slowed it down here, I might mistake the man’s knuckles for a caress.” He returns to a deathly car crash, unflipping the car nine times so it lands on its wheels, the necks of his friends “re-boned to their lives”.
Vuong’s mother, Rose, appears throughout; “Amazon History of a Former Nail Salon Worker” is an unexpectedly moving list poem, tracing Rose’s orders until her death. “Dear Rose”, one of Vuong’s longest poems yet, is breathless with loss: “are you reading this dear / reader are you my mom yet / I cannot find her without you this / place I’ve made you can’t / enter.”
In less careful hands some sentences would crumble under cliché, but Vuong has a rare talent of collapsing the intimate with the violent, cutting devastation with love: “Rose, I whispered as they zipped my mother in her body bag, get out of there. / Your plants are dying. / Enough is enough. / Time is a motherfucker, I said to the gravestones, alive, absurd.”
As Vuong writes in Night Sky, “some nights you are the lighthouse / some nights the sea”. The same could be said for these new poems, at once a light and a drowning.
Jonathan Cape, 112pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 28, 2022 as "Time Is a Mother, Ocean Vuong".
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