In 'Time is a Mother,' poet Ocean Vuong reflects on life, and time, without his mom

Penguin Random House
Penguin Random House

“Time is a Mother,” Ocean Vuong's latest poetry collection, can be read holistically as a paradox, zen koan, or the poetic equivalent of a Möbius strip.

Time, normally associated with death and erasure, embodied in the image of the Greek god Kronos devouring his young, is transformed by the poet into a mother with endlessly regenerative power.

Vuong's mother, Lê Kim Hồng — her name means rose or pink in Vietnamese — passed away at age 51 from breast cancer in November 2019, a few months before the pandemic smote a large segment of the world's population. “Time is a Mother,” with its 28 poems recalling the 28 lunar mansions in Asian astronomy, illustrates the poet's efforts to reconcile inexorable fate with aesthetic transformation, eternal absence with continuous presence:

"I can never take out
the rose it blooms back as my own
pink mouth"
(From "Dear Rose")

Time, mother, language are all connected — and, at times, paradoxical concepts. Vuong defines language as cultural memory embedded in his mother's body, a foundational capsule — like Noah's Ark — that steers him toward the future. The art of distilling fish sauce from rotten anchovies that he learns from Hồng is analogous to crafting poetry from traumatic, visceral experience. Vuong is thus receptive to latent possibilities in his refugee past, as he asks in "Not Even": "What if it wasn't the crash that made us, but the debris?" And defining his creative process as being fully in the moment, as if "every word was forgotten as soon as the hand / moved /across the page away," Vuong meditates on language's ability to "rewind" as a way to amend loss and reimagine the world in the poem "Dear T."

At the same time, he is painfully aware of language's shortcomings — it cannot undo his mother's death, or other deaths that he has had to endure in close succession. His alter-ego in "Künstlerroman" — despite the magical ability to reverse time through language, cannot resurrect his companions when revisiting the scene of a crash that killed them. Similarly, the suicide of Vuong's uncle — which he writes about in "Beautiful Short Loser" — represents a failure of communication, when language becomes a caged bird and not a transformative "word in the mouth" that can direct the man toward a different destiny. The inescapable nature of death versus human's exigent need to mediate rupture is a recurring dialogue in Vuong's poetry. The last dinosaur in his eponymous poem articulates the impossible question:

"O human, I'm not mad at you for winning
but that you never wished for more. Emperor
of language, why didn't you master No
without forgetting Yes?"

And yet, even if the last dinosaur perished, it lives on in Vuong's poem by recalling the briefly gorgeous present of its long annihilated past, "I bet you never guessed / that my ass was once a small-town / wonder." Similarly, in "Dear Sara," Vuong deftly illustrates kṣaṇa — the Buddhist concept of an all-encompassing moment — by connecting "black ants crossing a white desert" (his 7-year-old cousin Sara's definition of writing), to stone tablets, fossils, and greeting words on an electronic device where he "waves" to Sara at 2:34 a.m.

MPR News is Reader Funded

Before you keep reading, take a moment to donate to MPR News. Your financial support ensures that factual and trusted news and context remain accessible to all.

"Amazon History of a Former Nail Salon Worker" is another illustration of moment/presence, where we experience both Hồng's vitality and gradual extinction by reading a list of her Amazon purchases over a 20-month period, going from "Midsummer's Night" Yankee Candle, "Chemo-Glam cotton scarf, sunrise pink," a Snoopy birthday card for her son, to the finality of an "Eternity" urn.

Absence, framed by language, is also a paradoxical concept. Grief, in concentrating on specific memories, often seems to enhance the deceased's presence. In "The Punctum," Vuong extends this idea of presence — or conscious remembrance — to bodies that have been systematically erased by violence and prejudice. To acknowledge their unjust deaths is to affirm our intrinsic connection to their pain, since "history had proven the skull lodged in the gravedigger's hands is often the one behind your face." Similarly, Vuong dedicates "Toy Boat" to Tamir Rice — a 12-year-old black boy killed by the Cleveland police in 2014 for carrying a toy gun — juxtaposing the victim's death to Vuong's boyhood loss of innocence. The plastic toy boat in the poem echoes the yellow sailboats on the poet's blanket in "Tell Me Something Good," its fragility both contrasting and converging with 16-year-old Rimbaud's unresolved emotions in "The Drunken Boat" — on language's inability to transcend borders.

Aesthetically complex yet emotionally accessible, “Time is a Mother” at once innovates and affirms the existing poetic tradition, bringing to mind John Ashbery's Paradoxes and Oxymorons. Vuong's portrait of Hồng is both intimate and iconic, evoking Rilke's "irreplaceable, perfect rose" — "a supple spoken word / framed by the text of things." By addressing Hồng in "Dear Rose," Vuong also reaches out to us who, in reading his work, become his mother, the poem, and his community through space and time:

"... Pink Rose Hồng Mom

are you reading this dear

reader are you my mom yet

I cannot find her without you ..."

Thúy Đinh is a freelance critic and literary translator. Her work can be found at thuydinhwriter.com. She tweets @ThuyTBDinh

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.