Book Review: Time is a Mother by Ocean Vuong

May 10, 2022

Ocean Vuong runs his fingers through time as if it is water in his new book Time Is a Mother. And, upon contemplation, time does have similar properties to water: in the way it wavers; in the way it melts; in the way it stands, a thick mist before us. In the end, time, like water, has been here all along, it is that which we share.

Time Is a Mother is Ocean Vuong’s second book of poetry. In 2019 he published the novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, which won him acclaim and the MacArthur Fellowship. This new book of poetry is subdued. It is a relatively short compilation that centers around the death of his mother, a center which is not entirely substantial. Throughout the beginning of the book there are slight lines printed on the pages like the lines of a notebook, but they are neither consistent, nor self-referential. It is hard to make an unfinished feeling into a warm one. But the book’s intimacy reaches out to readers, as if to say: you know when you know about what it’s like to lose someone you love.

Vuong’s style is achingly simple. With coherence to the rest of his work, Vuong refuses finality, but honors death by acknowledging the depth of grief, which is also the depth of love. He is not afraid of the word as a tool to take one step beyond fatalism. And in this brave act opens the realm of a possible infinite, “I thought / the fall would / kill me / but it only made me real”, he writes in “Skinny Dipping.” In this poem he is preoccupied with transformation, where we try to fit into types that we feel like we recognize. “Skinny Dipping” is a changing room. He describes a summer of his youth, a time of freedom, and abandon, and fear. Again and again he uses language to morph into the verb: “rag to rage” to “leap from the verb,” to become is beyond language.

Several of the poems openly take great care to address specific people. “Dear Sara” begins with the seven-year-old: “What’s the point of writing if you’re just gonna force a bunch of ants across a white desert?” And proceeds to address Sara about the inefficiency and historical violence produced through written language. The ants, like words across the page, will bring you back to stone tablets showing how ancient the practice of writing is. But “it doesn’t have to make sense to be real,” Vuong asserts. He is making the point that language is never enough. His determined reference to words and grammar refuse to be the only meaning making in the language. He insists the body from those you love will give you the language you need: “[Y]our name sharpens daily against the marble of your mother’s teeth.” The action, in the end, will be the true meaning of the moment: As Sara slams a book, the trees sway outside.

The Künstlerroman or the narrative of the artist into maturity is written as a videotape on rewind. Memory is a thing that can be manipulated, and because of this time can never truly be understood. In this case, effect premeditates cause in a narrative that moves backwards across the imagined screen of the poem. Like some magic, violence is the great creator of the poem, as “the steeple rising under the wrecking ball’s touch.” Intermittently media from the news appears, like watching home footage with some taped over historical events. These events include the death of a dictator whose face is a “crumpled law”, “the tanks roll out of Iraq”, “people float up, arms open”. While objects are being created, time is being destroyed in this poem.

No emotion is ours alone, nor is grief. Through “Künstlerroman”, and other poems in the collection, Vuong illustrates the collective denial of American culture to even look at grief, in the form of lynchings, and wars, and carelessness by a white supremicist culture that would deny the life of anyone who might diverge from it. This idea is produced in the image of an arrow being placed inside them, or, indeed, shrapnel, or metal, to pin them down: to be still, a stillness, which Vuong proves impossible by the very movement of time.

How else to encapsulate time and create the narrative of how the artist, Vuong, matured, but to cover actions with a clear hard substance and force the characters across a screen? In one place in the poem, the view comes from one of his friends in a car whose life, perhaps, flashes before their eyes. There is a shifting sense of identity in this poem. The self is dissected from the I, becoming a friend who dies, becoming the collective memory that held the events of the poem. The perspective is also the collective memory of those who lived during this time, or to remember the way winter becomes fall. The poem begs the question, is there one artist? To describe how the process of transformation works can be forced into a tight capsule, the memories can be joyful or creative, they can be extracted like scenes in a film. But it’s time that we live in, we inhabit the hands before us, despite the pain or joy of the past.

The shadow of the poem is the memory of Vuong’s mother,  Lê Kim Hồng, or Rose. When my grandfather died a few months ago, a friend consoled me by saying death is only a way of that person going everywhere, existing in the leaf of a plant; the pages of a book; in a smile; outside of the body we knew so well. We don’t stop knowing or loving the people we lose. Death is not a static thing, but a massive, confounding, debilitating creation of space. There’s the shadow again: What is lost is simultaneously absent and present.

To write can feel like one is constantly trying and then missing the point. “Dear Rose” is more of a practice than a poem, to write about his mother, and always miss. To write her and her brother, who was killed, into the present. He grasps onto guidance from poets including Calvino who offer permission to make impossible things happen in poetry. Throughout the poem, Vuong’s mother is making fish sauce. Writing is also another way of working with the dead, but with a taste of belief in the impossible.

“I was made to die but I’m here to stay,” Vuong writes, unveiling in this statement the impermanence and necessity of form. I keep coming back to the emptiness that is inherent in this collection, like silences in the offbeat. Images like snow, leaves, ants, boats and arrows provide several of the imagistic modes of the collection, like keys in a song, providing structure. The resonance of the images operate as archetypes that point towards a void that is neither empty, nor is there anything there at all, but a breeze constantly blowing.

Publisher: Penguin Press

Publication date: April 5, 2022

Reviewed by Irene Lee


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