Time Is a Mother by Ocean Vuong review – writing that demands all your lungs | Poetry
Jhe parent-child relationship has been the core of 33 years Ocean Vuong in writing. The American poet’s family fled Vietnam to a refugee camp in the Philippines before migrating to the United States. His father abandoned them. Her mother worked in a nail salon. In one of the most compelling poems from his 2017 Forward Award-winning debut collection, night sky With exit wounds, he imagines himself dragging his father’s body out of the sea, turning it over and seeing a bullet wound in his back. Her 2019 novel, On Earth, we are briefly beautifulis a series of letters from a Vietnamese-American son to his illiterate mother – a tale that reflects much of Vuong’s life. time is a mother is her second collection of poetry and was written in the aftermath of her mother’s death.
There’s something about Vuong’s writing that demands all your lungs. The succinct arrangement of lines and lack of dots in poems such as Dear Rose make you breathe hard, for throughout this episodic poem Vuong speaks fondly to his deceased mother of his journey as an immigrant from the Vietnam in the United States. He fills the poem with vivid imagery: flying bullets, corpses, Wonder Bread soaked in condensed milk, and fermenting fish. He also wonders if she is still illiterate:
you bought me pens I could
not speak so I wrote myself in
silence where I stood waiting for you My
read me are you reading me now
Being driven by craving and compulsion seems to be central to the emotional landscape of Time is a mother, ssometimes until carelessness. The pictorial opening, The Bull, sets the tone for this sense of wild abandonment. The narrator of the poem is bewitched by the beauty of the bull; his kerosene blue eyes and his fur so dark it purples the night around him. “I had no choice. I opened the door.”
Vuong, to varying degrees, exemplifies what it means to be out of control. Some moments look like stock footage; playing air guitar in an upside-down wedding dress as seen in Beautiful Short Loser, or hitting “bottom in my fast car that’s going nowhere”, in The Last Prom Queen in Antarctica. But it’s the candid, unphotogenic angles with bad lighting that are most memorable, like in Rise & Shine, where he tackles drug addiction.
Scratched last $8.48
of the glass jar.
The value of your advice day
at the nail salon. Sufficient
for a hit.
Poems like American Legend reveal the heights of Vuong’s self-destruction. Here we see how far one can go for intimacy, as a son crashes his car to get physically closer to his father.
in me &
we kissed each other
for the first time
Yet, beneath the macabre scenes hides an innocent curiosity and a thirst for truth and beauty. These ghost poems speak of the cavernous corners of loss, grief, abandonment, trauma and war, but this does not entail nihilism or apathy for life; in fact, Vuong approaches death as an entrance rather than an end. “I was made to die but I’m here to stay,” he says in The Last Dinosaur.
Not Even is full of terse, factual phrases that explode. He writes here with bold energy. Phrases such as “Some call this prayer, I call it watch your mouth,” come across as one-liners. He fills the poem with pregnant pauses, sometimes suffixing sentences with “Ha” to inspire awkward laughter. Absurdity abounds in this poem, but it’s Vuong’s use of comedic timing that surprisingly provides the most arresting and evocative moment:
PinkI whispered as they closed my mother in her body bag, get out of here.
Your plants are dying.
You may have heard these stories about Vuong’s life, his family history and the tragedies of his people who lay “mutilated under the Weather the photographer’s shadow” before. You may well hear them again in the future, but because Vuong plays with time to the millisecond – slowing down or speeding up old memories or conversations – he discovers illuminating new details that have a life of their own.
He stood alone in the garden, so dark that the night was purple around him.
I had no choice. I opened the door
& got out. Wind
in branches. He looked at me with kerosene
-blue eyes. What do you want? I asked, forgetting that I had no tongue. He continued to breathe,
stay alive. I was a boy –
which meant I was a murderer
of my childhood. & like all murderers, my god
was silence. My god, he was still
the. Like something to pray for
by a man without a mouth. The green-blue lamp swirled in its socket. I do not have
want it. I didn’t want him
to be beautiful – but to need beauty
to be more than hurt sweet
enough to hold, I reached for him. I reached – not the bull –
but the depths. Not an answer but
an entrance in the form of
an animal. Like me.