Time Is a Mother by Ocean Vuong

Review by Anna Hollingsworth

War, identity, cultural outsiderness, exploitation, love, family and belonging (or more often not) were at the core of Ocean Vuong’s previous works, his debut poetry collection Night Sky with Exit Wounds and novel On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. Thinking back to when I read the latter, I was struck by how it shrouded very dark themes into beautifully flowing language. The dissonance landed a blow that lasted. Now, in a new collection of poems, Time Is a Mother, Vuong does more of the same — as gorgeously as ever.

Family has been a kind of focal point for Vuong in his earlier works — especially the narrator’s mother and grandmother, refugees from Vietnam — and that is even more so here. The poems explore the aftershock of the speaker’s mother’s death, and while doing so, they explore identities, mental health and a general sense of drifting in the world.

The poems don’t shy away from dark places of the mind, and when they dive into those depths, they do so without the usual clichés. Instead, there is a freshness that both shocks and dazzles in its often macabre tones. In ‘You Guys’, for example, the speaker brushes their teeth while addressing two rabbits in a bath tub — a setting that could be a Beatrix Potter watercolour. Yet as the poem chugs on at a steady pace, more gruesome layers are uncovered: “earlier I had scooped them/ from the pavement/ they were crushed but only/ kinda one/ had a dented half-face/ the other’s back flattened like/ a courage sock.” The Potter picture dissipates.

Or take ‘American Legend’: in it, the speaker tells of a car journey with his“old man” on way to kill their dog Susan. But the journey is cut short when the car flips — “maybe I meant to/ make the hairpin turn/ too hard” — and the speaker describes a blissful moment in the upturned car as he gets “exactly what he wanted”: “I kissed/ my father./ He grinned/ I think. His pupils/ elsewhere.” Vuong’s brand of darkness toys with hidden urges and the poems feel psychologically daring, like pulling off the covers from what is expected to remain unsaid (I’m sure there’s a Freudian analysis in there).

Another theme where the writer’s peculiar darkness comes through is childhood. The mourning of a parent in poetry tends to evoke childhood memories, and often that period is presented as basking in a kind of golden light. Here, however, images of childhood break away from that pattern, and not as a result of some kind of unfairness from side of the dead mother; rather, childhood is dangerous and bad in itself. The tone is set right from the get-go. In the opening poem ‘The Bull’, three lines define what is to come: “I was a boy —/ which meant I was a murderer/ of my childhood.” The deadliness of childhood brings a gritty texture to the collection as a whole, and makes it certainly more interesting than a more nostalgic take would.

But it would be wrong to claim that Time Is a Mother doesn’t go beyond shades of dark. Part of the dazzling effect of On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous was the sense of fleeting beauty — most memorably in scenes of the protagonist Little Dog and Trevor, the boy he loves, surrounded by the tobacco they’ve worked to harvest. In the new poems, some of the same sense of brief moments of wonder is chrystallised in ‘Reasons for Staying’. It presents a kind of eclectic list of things that range from sex to near-aphorisms to things that make you go, ‘gosh, I never realised’. There is “Because of a blade of brown rye, multiplied by thousands, makes a/ purple field”, there is “Because my uncle never killed himself — but simply died, on/ purpose”, and there is “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.”

The poems are peppered with verbal images that twist reality in a delightful way. In one, there is a pan “bubbling/ into a small possible/ sun”. Even gravity receives a new angle: “Sometimes I think gravity/ was like: To be brutally honest… & then/ never stopped talking”. And in one of most societally critical poems of the collection, ‘Not Even’, there is a punch delivered on how people from less-privileged backgrounds are perceived in the US in one shotgun line: “Our sorrow Midas touched. Napalm with a rainbow afterglow.” (Just before, the speaker recounts an event at an artsy party on a Brooklyn rooftop, where he’s told by a young woman: “You’re so/ lucky. You’re gay and you get to write about war and stuff./ I’m/ just white. [Pause] I got nothing [Laughter, classing clinking].” According to an interview, this goes back to a student in Vuong’s creative writing class.) 

Stylistically, there are some very enjoyable explorations of form. ‘Amazon History of a Former Nail Salon Worker’ itemizes the mother’s purchases from lipstick to Clorox bleach and gradually to increasing amounts of painkillers and Chemo-Glam headscarves. In its paired down delivery, it offers a powerful critique of the chemical-induced working conditions in nail bars. ‘Künstlerroman’, in turn, rewinds — in the literal sense of using a video player — a man’s life back to a car crash. It’s a cinematic reading experience full of clever visual detail of how life works backwards. If there is one thing that Time Is a Mother could have had more of, it’s this kind of playfulness where poetry grows out of basically non-poetic things, whether it be order histories or video tapes.

But then again, you can’t ask for much more than what Time Is a Mother already is. Vuong’s writing shines brightly again through all its thematic darkness.

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Anna is a journalist and a linguist.

Ocean Vuong, Time is a Mother (Jonathan Cape, 2022). 978-1787333840, 80pp., hardback.

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