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Lit In Ocean Vuong’s “Time Is a Mother,” grief is an old friend

Apr. 27, 2022
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If you’re a reader, or have been on the internet sometime in the last five years, you know Ocean Vuong’s name. The writer entered the mainstream scene with his New York Times best-selling novel On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, but he started his writing career as a poet. His first official collection, Night Sky with Exit Wounds, was released in 2016 to solid reviews, but it wasn’t until Briefly Gorgeous that Vuong shot into stardom. The book, while fictional, takes inspiration from Vuong’s life growing up as a second-generation immigrant with a single mother. It’s a tender story of love, queerness, and the “otherness” that is placed on children of immigrants—and these themes are all also found in Vuong’s newest writing project.

More than anything, Time Is a Mother displays Vuong’s growth as a writer; with sprawling prose that emulates fiction at times, he has broken the tradition of modern writing. The collection opens up with a dedication to his partner, Peter, and his mother. Vuong’s mother has been a central part of his work since Exit Wounds, but with her having passed just after Briefly Gorgeous debuted, her presence is felt within this body of work even more so than the others, with images of her woven into poems that aren’t even directly about her. The act of writing has clearly allowed Vuong to bring his mother back to life, even just for a moment on the page.

Vuong uses iconic imagery, too, as is the case with the line “sometimes when I can’t sleep, I imagine Van Gogh singing Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ into his cut ear & feeling peace.” Even the less experienced poetry reader can immerse themself in Vuong’s pieces. To be reflective is indeed the job of the writer, but Vuong captures his past and present in such a way that it’s alarming, as if he knows the answers to the questions he proposes in his work. Grief is a lonesome friend, one with which we all struggle, but reading lines like “lest we forget, a morgue is also a community center” make it feel less isolating. 

Time Is a Mother is one part a reflection on grief and time, and one part a manifesto on acceptance. The book’s chapters symbolize different stages of the grieving process. Vuong frequently draws parallels between human and animal bodies—almost as if to assure us that any loss, no matter how small, is tragic. With these whimsical and almost fantastical passages, it’s easy to get caught up in the story each poem tells, but lines like “the way Lil Peep says I’ll be back in the mornin’ when you know how it ends” bring us back to reality.

Modern poetry has gotten some (well-deserved) flack due to the late 2010s era of “Instagram poetry,” but with work like this, it’s hard to find truth in the complaint that all modern poetry is the same. While Instagram poetry is still dominating the field, there are indeed writers out there who have something to say beyond standard four-stanza poems and viral tweets. While Vuong’s work perhaps isn’t as easy to digest as Rupi Kaur’s, this collection has more to offer in terms of vulnerability and craft. Since his debut poetry collection, Vuong has become more and more earnest, and in Time Is a Mother it’s clear that this suits him well. 

While most modern poets have attempted to keep their work short—Orion Carloto and Atticus are two of the most popular examples—Vuong basks in sprawling prose. Many of his poems (especially “The Last Prom Queen in Antarctica”) read like streams of consciousness, and some are so abstract that it’s hard not to read them multiple times. The way Vuong warps memory, time, and image is enough of a reason to read Time Is a Mother, but it’s the sincerity that wafts off every page that’s the main selling point. With this collection, Vuong takes  something as isolating as grief and makes it feel like a communion. When reading Time Is a Mother, there is no sense of loneliness, but rather a sense of feeling whole.