It was with great anticipation that I read Ocean Vuong’s latest collection of poems, Time is a Mother. Ocean Vuong is a Vietnamese American poet, essayist, and novelist. He is highly regarded as a poet, having received the 2014 Ruth Lilly/Sargent Rosenberg Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation, a 2016 Whiting Award, and the 2017 T.S. Eliot Prize. His best-selling debut novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, takes the unique form of a letter from a son to his mother, who he knows will not be able to read it.
In his latest poetry collection, Vuong adapts and builds on his novel’s thought-provoking narrative. This time, however, he transports the reader into his poignant thoughts, memories, and emotions that are catalyzed by experiences with grief and healing from various trauma, including his mother’s death.
Reading his verses, I was particularly struck by his comments about racism. As Vuong writes,
“I know. I know the room you’ve been crying in | is called America. | I know the door is not invented yet.”
“Because everyone knows yellow pain, pressed into American letters, turns to gold.”
“And your hand moves to your throat, to make sure you are | still the speaker, that English is still your reckoned wreck. | That it hasn’t pooled into an ink-dark puddle at your feet.”
His writing feels personal and raw—as if Vuong wrote these poems to help himself heal, just as audiences may read these poems to help themselves vicariously heal from trauma as well. While the pacing seemed uneven at times, this is, perhaps, Vuong’s intentional attempt to authentically portray the naturally inconsistent flow of life’s emotions, a constant fluctuation of peaks and valleys, walks and sprints.
Vuong tells stories with real-time movement. His poetry often mirrors the way our thoughts and observations naturally float from one to the next; and they are not always connected in the most obvious ways, yet they are connected in the most human way they can be. He lets readers into his mind’s eye, and his thoughts begin to feel like your own because they are written so naturally:
“Because my uncle decided to leave this world, intact. | Because taking a piece of my friend away from him made him more whole. | Because where I’m from the trees look like family laughing in my head. | Because I am the last of my kind at the beginning of hope.”
Vuong has found a way to discuss such serious and painful topics in a lyrically accessible yet uncompromising way. He highlights the strength of everyday people. The strength and tenacity we all need to survive our struggles and being caught between the push and pull of the most precious and intimate moments of life and the harsh realities that often come crashing down.
While this collection of poetry will especially resonate with those who are LGBTQ+, Asian American, survivors of trauma, readers of all backgrounds will find lines, stanzas, and imagery they can relate to and connect with. I commend Vuong for his ability to voice so many important topics in Time is a Mother and I highly recommend it to all readers.