The BookBrowse Review

Published June 22, 2022

ISSN: 1930-0018

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Time Is a Mother
Time Is a Mother
by Ocean Vuong

Hardcover (5 Apr 2022), 128 pages.
Publisher: Penguin Press
ISBN-13: 9780593300237

The highly anticipated collection of poems from the award-winning writer Ocean Vuong.

How else do we return to ourselves but to fold
The page so it points to the good part

In this deeply intimate second poetry collection, Ocean Vuong searches for life among the aftershocks of his mother's death, embodying the paradox of sitting within grief while being determined to survive beyond it. Shifting through memory, and in concert with the themes of his novel On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous, Vuong contends with personal loss, the meaning of family, and the cost of being the product of an American war in America. At once vivid, brave, and propulsive, Vuong's poems circle fragmented lives to find both restoration as well as the epicenter of the break.

The author of the critically acclaimed poetry collection Night Sky With Exit Wounds, winner of the 2016 Whiting Award, the 2017 T. S. Eliot Prize, and a 2019 MacArthur fellow, Vuong writes directly to our humanity without losing sight of the current moment. These poems represent a more innovative and daring experimentation with language and form, illuminating how the themes we perennially live in and question are truly inexhaustible. Bold and prescient, and a testament to tenderness in the face of violence, Time Is a Mother is a return and a forging forth all at once.

Snow Theory

This is the best day ever
I haven't killed a thing since 2006
The darkness out there, wet as a newborn
I dog-eared the book & immediately
Thought of masturbation
How else do we return to ourselves but to fold
The page so it points to the good part
Another country burning on TV
What we'll always have is something we lost
In the snow, the dry outline of my mother
Promise me you won't vanish again, I said
She lay there awhile, thinking it over
One by one the houses turned off their lights
I lay down over her outline, to keep her true
Together we made an angel
It looked like something being destroyed in a blizzard
I haven't killed a thing since

Excerpted from Time Is a Mother by Ocean Vuong. Copyright © 2022 by Ocean Vuong. Excerpted by permission of Penguin Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Poet Ocean Vuong's second full-length collection is a moving exploration of grief, memory, sexuality and identity.

Print Article Publisher's View   

Readers familiar with Vuong's debut collection of poetry, Night Sky with Exit Wounds, and his semi-autobiographical novel, On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous, will find themselves on familiar ground with his second collection of poems. A natural continuation of the themes explored in his previous work, Time Is a Mother chronicles Vuong's experiences as a queer Vietnamese American, and his complex relationship with his mother, an immigrant single parent unable to communicate in English.

Though we have seen Vuong tackle these topics before, his perspective has undoubtedly changed since the loss of his mother to cancer. The bittersweet reality of life persevering in the face of death and the interplay between grief and memory are central concerns in these new pieces. He navigates the difficulty of capturing his sadness, and the struggles faced by his mother as a refugee from Vietnam, without allowing their pain to be tokenized. He explains how minority voices can be exploited by publishers, their gestures toward diversity just a ploy for profit: "Because everyone knows yellow / pain, pressed into American letters, turns to gold. / Our sorrows Midas touched."

Though she could never fully understand his work due to her illiteracy, Vuong's mother was a source of support, and the gratitude he feels for her in return is clear in his words: "[…] reader who / cannot read / or write you wrote a son / into the world with no / words but a syllable so much / like a bullet its heat fills you." The aforementioned idea of contradictions is also reflected in his commentary on sexuality, with sex and the exploration of bodily desire presented as bringers of both joy and sadness in equal measure. The imagery employed takes this idea even further. When discussing his relationship with his own body and identity, Vuong is just as likely to describe them as a prison ("childhood / is only a cage / that widens") as he is to depict them as something full of hope ("I'm on the edge of myself & these / aren't wings, they're futures"), ultimately settling on a touching form of acceptance ("Because this body is my last address").

His outlook on the world around him is equally fraught with complexity. At times, nature is presented as a source of anxiety, in lines such as, "I'm still afraid / of butterflies / how they move so much / like a heart / on fire" and "[…] the birds are / just holes in the gunshot / sky." Just as often, however, moments of quiet beauty hint at comfort and continuity: "October leaves coming down, as if called."

It's standout, evocative images like those quoted above that characterize Vuong's work at its best, but the pieces are also structurally interesting. Many of the poems flow freely, featuring unexpected line breaks and little in the way of punctuation. This lends them an almost breathless quality, as though thoughts and emotions are spilling forth unchecked — apt given the raw emotion at hand. But while the writing on display here doesn't quite match the urgency or the gut-punch delivery of his debut collection, there is still effortless poignancy throughout, and it is this that makes his work so affecting.

With his remarkable command of the form, Vuong invites readers to pause, contemplate and see themselves and their own experiences reflected in the text. The poems are deeply personal, but their themes — including family, grief and selfhood — are universally resonant.

Reviewed by Callum McLaughlin

All of Ocean Vuong's writing shows a masterful attention to detail. He comes at language with a magnifying glass. He holds words differently than everyone else, and when he hands them to you, they are changed...Dealing with the death of his mother, this new book comes from a place of grief and memory, turning loss over and over in a way that only this writer can.

Aesthetically complex yet emotionally accessible, Time is a Mother at once innovates and affirms the existing poetic tradition...Vuong's portrait of Hồng is both intimate and iconic.
Stories of personal loss are woven into vignettes and memories that explore the most sweeping of subjects—addiction, racism, war, death, family—with a gentle, modest touch and the occasional dose of humor...[F]or all his technical prowess, the most striking thing about Vuong's writing will always be its warm, beating heart even in the face of life's cruelties...It's a body of work as hauntingly beautiful as it is ultimately hopeful, and very possibly Vuong's best yet.

Washington Post
[A] stirring collection of poetry. [Vuong] experiments with language and form while probing the aftermath of his mother's death and his determination to survive it. Take your time with these poems, and return to them often.

Booklist (starred review)
[Vuong] focuses on the complicated relationship with his mother in quiet, astonishing lyrics...Even the most ostensibly simple moments prove mesmerizing in Vuong's treatment.

Library Journal (starred review)
Enriching Vuong's already sterling early career, this new collection feels abraded by both the weight of loss and of living, yet is cut with a profusion of affecting beauty and humor.

Publishers Weekly (starred review)
Vuong's powerful follow-up to Night Sky with Exit Wounds does more than demonstrate poetic growth: it deepens and extends an overarching project with 27 new poems that reckon with loss and impermanence...This fantastic book will reward fans while winning this distinctive poet new ones.

Write your own review

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Manshi Sharma
Should be punctual for time.
I read this book naturally inspiration what we to do, and we can stayed but time will not stop. So basically how to make it beneficial. I was inspired from this book. I really was.

Print Article Publisher's View  

Language Challenges for U.S. Immigrants

Language and communication are key themes throughout the work of Ocean Vuong. In both his fiction and poetry — including his newest collection, Time Is a Mother — he discusses the difficulties his mother faced as a Vietnamese immigrant living in the U.S. who didn't read, write or speak English.

Historically, being a melting pot of people from around the world, the U.S. was a polyglot nation, with the use of multiple indigenous and immigrant languages accepted as the norm. Historical studies on this subject suggest that at the time of independence, the first language of a third or more of American residents was something other than English.

The arrival of World War I in 1914 significantly curtailed immigration to the U.S., and the subsequent global depression and stricter immigration quotas compounded rising feelings of hostility towards newcomers. Prior to this, minority languages often died out from generation to generation anyway, as immigrants assimilated, however willingly or unwillingly. While linguistic diversity has been on the up again, there has been rising anti-immigrant sentiment in recent years, including a surge in anti-Asian harassment and hate crimes. The harmful and discriminatory "speak English!" mentality has seen a resurgence, having been lent credence by far-right politicians and the media.

There are many reasons why some immigrants struggle to pick up English, not least a lack of accessible learning support. Many countries offer comprehensive government-sponsored language learning classes for new immigrants, but the U.S. has no such federal program. Instead, immigrants often rely on adult education classes run by non-profits and local schools, which are estimated to be serving only about four percent of those in need. Recent studies show that American residents who do not speak English receive about a third less health care than other Americans. Health care facilities that are federally funded are required to have interpreters, but these laws are often unenforced.

The lack of accommodation for those who don't speak English has many negative consequences. Vuong has detailed his mother's experience with the American health care system, for example: Having gone to the hospital with severe back pain, she was sent home with a heat patch. Concerned that not enough had been done, Vuong took his mother back to the hospital and spoke on her behalf. Tests revealed she had stage IV breast cancer that had spread to her spine and bone marrow. As he explained it:

"I thought, here we are again: I have to speak for you. I have to speak for your pain. I have to verbalize your humanity. Because it's not a given. Which is the central problem with how we value Asian American women."

Despite not understanding English, Ocean Vuong's mother was a proud supporter of his work. When she attended his readings, she would face the audience, using their reactions to interpret the emotion and impact of his words. This, Vuong explains, taught him an important lesson about human empathy that transcends language:

"As a woman of color, an Asian woman, in the world, she taught me how to be vigilant. How people's faces, posture, tone, could be read. She taught me how to make everything legible when language was not."

Filed under Society and Politics

By Callum McLaughlin

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