Ocean Vuong promises poignancy, profundity in ‘Time is a Mother’

Photo of "Time is a Mother" book cover
Penguin Random House/Courtesy

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An architect of words and practiced in perfervidity, Ocean Vuong deftly weaves together a vibrant canopy that is dizzyingly breathtaking in his newest poetry collection “Time is a Mother.” 

Prior to the book’s release, the Vietnamese-American writer had already garnered colossal praise for his 2019 debut novel “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous,” an epistolary novel in correspondence to his illiterate immigrant mother. Yet, however high Vuong previously set the bar, it is more than surpassed in his most recent work, a poignant, earthshaking elegy once again for his mother, who is now deceased.

The book is cleaved into four chapters, each slice emitting its own tone: the first holds itself to a more conversational sound than Vuong has previously put out, but he masters the voice effortlessly. The second, however, returns to his familiar flowery cadence as the weaving pattern takes effect, slowly unraveling vivid themes of time, loneliness and love.

Within the second chapter, a spotlight shines brightest on the poem “Not Even.” Previously published as “Not Even This,” the already striking piece of work takes on new life with its two years maturation, a rumination on time and its endless agenda of progress. In a series of short, sardonic snippets, “Not Even” examines a journey through the caverns of time, traversing culture, queerness and identity. 

This poem is also where the novel’s title is derived: the thought-provoking, ripened line “Time is a mother” grows stronger by the refrain revisited later in the poem, immersed overwhelmingly in grief for his own late mother: “Time is a motherfucker.”

The third chapter stands out for its brevity; with only two poems, the theme seems to emulate the coexistence of a pair of lists: a backwards litany of pain, followed by a forwardly moving, progressive instruction manual for hope. 

The first poem is “Künstlerroman,” a German word for the “artist’s novel.” Spanning over ten pages, the poem is one of Vuong’s longest, its form a poignant passage of the narrator walking backwards through various scenes in his life. The poet’s journey astern carves through grief, sexuality, violence, addiction and the ever-present barbarity of war. Vuong stretches time taut until it eventually snaps back into place like a tweaked rubber band, its vibration reverberating across the pages of the novel. 

While “Künstlerroman” pulls time open, its counterpart “Reasons for Staying” creates room for more, chronicling all the reasons Vuong has deemed worthy to stay on this earth.

The final chapter, which opens with God in the process of human creation, is where Vuong’s social commentary ultimately prevails with the inclusion of poems like “Toy Boat.” Dedicated to Tamir Rice, “Toy Boat” is a desolate, lonely elegy for the twelve year old African-American boy who was murdered in 2014 by a white police officer. 

Vuong paints an intricate, haunting extended metaphor using the image of a toy boat floating on the sea to represent the figure of the young Black boy, who is “oarless,” completely unable to have a choice in his own destiny, moved only by his own “waiting” for society to catch up with him. This is not a poem of activism — it is a poem of mourning.

Mourning dawns most profoundly however, at the close of the final chapter, in Vuong’s stunning ten-page letter to his mother “Dear Rose.” Without pausing for breath between stanzas, Vuong enjambs instances of aching grief to sweeping memory, the stream of consciousness like a patchwork quilt sewn up haphazardly in sorrow. 

Equal parts memoir and artistic tapestry, “Time is a Mother” guarantees pathos from the dedication — “for Peter & for my mother, Lê Kim Hồng, called forward,” to the book’s final moments, grief-stricken and graceful. 

“The blood inside my hands is now inside the world,” Vuong laments in “American Legend.” It’s one of several allusions to the fraught fervency of putting pen to paper and watching the world react to his words. In this instance, blood is not just blood; it is also life, death and violence, kindling burning passion and clefting the empty shell of loss. These feelings spread through the veins of the book — intricate, impassioned and wholly invigorating.

Contact Vivian Stacy at [email protected].