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Saigoneer Bookshelf: Ocean Vuong Asks Questions in 'Time Is a Mother'

Fame and poetry rarely go together.

The average person has trouble naming five contemporary poets, and most will admit to not having read a single book of poetry in the past year. But I suspect if one were to poll readers in Vietnam as to the author of the last book of poetry written in English that they read, the most common answer would be Ocean Vuong.

The reasons for this are numerous. Vuong, whose accolades include a MacArthur “Genius” Grant and a T.S. Eliot prize, is as close to a rockstar as exists in America’s poetry landscape right now. While highly acclaimed in that insular world for nearly a decade, his 2019 novel On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous catapulted him to a level of fame few poets ever reach and included a stop on late night television, while his novel is now being made into a Hollywood film. His second poetry collection, Time Is a Mother, is thus, unsurprisingly, one of the most anticipated poetry books in recent years, receiving attention from major publications that normally devote little space to American poetry. 

Ocean Vuong at home with his dog, Tofu. Photo by Aram Boghosian via LA Times.

Vuong’s prominence is magnified in Vietnam. Born in Saigon, his work is sprinkled with allusions to Vietnamese history and culture. The recent translation of On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, titled Một thoáng ta rực rỡ ở nhân gian and published by Hội nhà văn, further cemented his connection with his home country. Meanwhile, although the past few decades have seen great acclaim for diasporic writers including Việt Thanh Nguyễn, Thi Bui, Kim Thúy and others, Vietnamese voices remain under-represented in global literature, making Vuong an important, aspirational story for readers around the world.

Such a high profile expands the audience who will pick up Time Is a Mother and what they will be looking for inside. Some will focus on Vuong’s identity as a Vietnamese American; some will key in on what his work means for the LGBTQ+ community; his exploration of addiction will draw some in; while his examinations of loss and grief will speak to others and his mastery of language will entice devoted poetry readers of all backgrounds.

… stop writing

about your mother they said

but I can never take out

the rose at it blooms back as my own

Vuong proclaims in the stand-out long poem, 'Dear Rose.' Vuong’s previous books have indeed spent considerable attention on the mother character named Rose, and Time Is a Mother continues to explore the speaker’s relationship with her, though now in the context of her passing, recalled as “a face / at the window / a thumbprint left over / from whose god?”

But beyond that penultimate poem and scattered references elsewhere, grief, loss and mourning manifest themselves not through ruminations on his mother, but via friends and family members, as well as his own mortality. His depictions range from beautiful (“I felt things that made death so large it was indistinguishable from air—and I went on destroying inside it like wind in a storm”) to graphic (“I let a man spit in my mouth / because my eyes wouldn’t water / after Evan shot himself”). While anguish lingers throughout the book, it serves as a shadow cast by and across exuberance for living and supports the understanding that:

Maybe,

like you, I was one of those people

whose loves the world most

when I’m rock-bottom in my fast car

going nowhere.

Vuong rarely discusses death without violence, but violence leads a double life wherein wounds are not always fatal. It is inexorably connected to sex, love, nature, history and culture. Vuong frequently examines its relationship to concepts of America, as exemplified by 'Old Glory,' which showcases how central the language of assault and savagery is to American slang.

He references Tamir Rice, a victim of police brutality, and people of color who were lynched in 19th- and early-20th-century California. Poetry finds itself, perhaps moreso than anywhere else in America right now, grappling with the nation’s legacies of, and continued commitment to, violence, and Vuong adds his own perspective. In 'American Legend,' a poem filled with classic Americana images including large lawns and an old poodle, he details how it took crashing their big Ford car for him to be close enough to embrace his father for the first time in decades. 

Death is an implicit potential outcome for drug addiction, but Vuong approaches the subject through a perspective of recovery. How much readers want to connect the author’s real experiences abusing pills and those of the speaker in the book is, of course, up to them, but the poems do present chemical dependency in a past tense that matches Vuong’s biography. In several instances, the speaker describes the physical and mental changes experienced during time in rehab, noting:

I’ll learn to swim

when I’m out once

& for all

the body floats

for a reason maybe

we can swim right up

to it grab on

kick us back

to shore Peter I think

I’m doing it right

now finally maybe

I’m winning even

if it just looks like

my fingers are shaking

Vuong may visit these themes that will be familiar to those that have read his other works, but his writing has gotten sharper and somewhat more direct, with an increase in dark humor. He remains a master of enjambed lines that can be read with several simultaneous meanings and has a preference for images that do the heavy emotional lifting, which make his poems daunting for those who do not frequently read poetry.

But while not conversational, many of the poems are easier to parse compared to Night Sky With Exit Wounds, especially because of stand-alone phrases that read like aphorisms. “I’ll show you the beautiful thing we can do to mirrors just by standing still,” “imagine being born in a hospice in flames,” and “Is the memory of a song the shadow of a sound or is that too much?” are witty and accessible enough that I expect to soon see them grace the Instagram captions of people who are not commonly into poetry.

Unlike more narrative poets, one cannot approach Time Is a Mother the way one does other types of literature, and this relative difficulty, coupled with his fame, creates an interesting situation. The book will certainly find its way into the hands of people that profess to not like poetry, not understand it, or worst of all, not feel smart enough for it. To them, I would relay the advice of National Public Radio’s Book of the Day host, Andrew Limbong, who suggests forgetting everything one learned in school about poetry and arrive at it personally, because “it's not like you have to know a thing about cinematography to appreciate a movie — right?”

I first encountered Vuong’s poetry back in 2013, before I’d moved to Vietnam and without any personal connection to the subjects in his work. I was simply in awe of how he combined power and beauty in his metaphors, and the way his near-whisper of a voice consumed all the attention in a room. It’s been thrilling to see him rise to the levels of fame he has in the ensuing decade, and a little strange to hear his name mentioned casually by friends and strangers who have little more than a passing interest in poetry. 

On the heels of being named a Ruth Lilly/Sargent Rosenberg Fellow in 2014, Vuong flew down for a reading and events in Miami, where I was in graduate school studying poetry. I wished I had asked him at the time what he would say about his future success, or what he would offer to the diverse group of readers he would one day have regarding how to approach his work. But for all his obvious virtuosity, even then, who could have possibly predicted where he was headed? 

Rather, I asked him about how he separates the art from the artist. He responded with a paraphrase from the poet Merwin: “Writing is the weaving of one’s thread through a fabric, so that when the needle threads the fabric, all of yourself goes through to color that fabric; you can’t separate those threads.” Vuong added that when a writer pushes beyond those threads without transcending them, it allows him or her to “discover something else…the next question. And the best questions are always better than their answers.” 

Time Is a Mother isn’t a book of answers, but rather one of questions. It matters little if they are questions that a reader is already asking, hadn’t yet thought to ask, or has no interest in asking, as Vuong weaves them into a fabric worth ensconcing oneself in.

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