The parent-child relationship has been the nucleus of 33-year-old Ocean Vuong’s writing. The American poet’s family fled Vietnam to a refugee camp in the Philippines before migrating to the US. His father abandoned them. His mother worked in a nail salon. In one of the most compelling poems in his Forward prize-winning 2017 debut collection, night sky With Exit Wounds, he imagines dragging his father’s body out of the sea, turning him over, and seeing a gunshot wound in his back. His 2019 novel of him, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeousis a series of letters from a Vietnamese-American son to his illiterate mother — a tale that mirrors much of Vuong’s own life. Time Is a Mother is his second poetry collection, and was written in the aftermath of his mother’s death.
There’s something about Vuong’s writing that demands all of your lungs. The succinct line arrangement and absence of full stops in poems such as Dear Rose force you to breathe heavy, as throughout this episodic poem Vuong talks tenderly to his dead mother de ella about her journey de ella as an immigrant from Vietnam to the US. He fills the poem with vivid imagery: flying bullets, corpses, Wonder Bread dipped in condensed milk and the fermentation of fish. He also wonders if she’s still illiterate:
you bought me pencils reader I could
not speak so I wrote myself into
silence where I stood waiting for you Ma
to read me do you read me now
Being led by urge and compulsion feels central to the emotional landscape of Time Is a Mother,ssometimes to the point of recklessness. The painterly opener, The Bull, sets the tone for this sense of wild abandon. The narrator of the poem is bewitched by the bull’s beauty; its kerosene-blue eyes and fur so dark it purples the night around it. “I had no choice. I opened the door”.
Vuong, to varying degrees, illustrates what it means to be out of control. Some of the moments feel like stock images; playing air guitar in a backwards wedding dress as seen in Beautiful Short Loser, or hitting “rock-bottom in my fast car going nowhere”, in The Last Prom Queen in Antarctica. But it’s the candid, unphotogenic angles with bad lighting that are the most memorable, as in Rise & Shine, where he touches on drug addiction.
Scraped the last $8.48
from the glass jar.
Your day’s worth of tips
at the nail salon. Enough
for one hit.
Poems like American Legend reveal the heights of Vuong’s self-destruction. Here, we see the lengths one might go to for intimacy, as a son crashes his car to get physically closer to his father.
I have slammed
into me &
for the first time
Still, underneath the macabre scenes is an innocent curiosity and thirst for truth and beauty. These ghost poems are about the cavernous corners of loss, grief, abandonment, trauma and war, but that doesn’t result in nihilism or apathy for life; in fact, Vuong approaches death like an entrance rather than an ending. “I was made to die but I’m here to stay”, he asserts in The Last Dinosaur.
Not Even is packed with laconic matter-of-fact sentences that blast. He writes with an audacious energy here. Sentences such as “Some call this prayer, I call it watch your mouth”, feel like one liners. He fills the poem with pregnant pauses, sometimes suffixing phrases with “Ha” to inspire awkward laughter. Absurdity is in abundance in this poem, but it’s the way Vuong uses comedic timing that surprisingly provides the most arresting and evocative moment:
RoseI whispered as they zipped my mother in her body bag, get out of there.
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 “mangled under the Time photographer’s shadow” before. You may well hear them again in the future, but because Vuong plays with time by the millisecond — slowing down or speeding up old memories or conversations — he uncovers new enlightening details that have a life of their own.
He stood alone in the backyard, so dark the night purpled around him.
I had no choice. I opened the door
& stepped out. Wind
in the branches. I watched me with kerosene
-blue eyes. What do you want? I asked, forgetting I had no language. I have kept breathing,
to stay alive. I was a boy
which meant I was a murderer
of my childhood. & like all murderers, my god
was stillness. My god, he was still
there. Like something prayed for
by a man with no mouth. The green-blue lamp swirled in its socket. I didn’t
want him. I didn’t want him to
be beautiful – but needing beauty
to be more than hurt gentle
enough to hold, I reached for him. I reached – not the bull –
but the depths. Not an answer but
an entrance the shape of
an animal. Like me.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism