The Harrowing Middle

‘Time Is a Mother’ by Ocean Vuong



In February, I attended a reading by the poet Ocean Vuong in New York. There were dozens of us gathered, diligently masked and packed shoulder to shoulder, as he arrived at the podium and opened his new book, Time Is a Mother. His voice was familiarly haunting and incantatory as he read new poems to an audience rippling with nods and soft murmurs, the usual somber reverence of grad students. Vuong only faltered when he arrived at this line: “I used to cry in a genre no one read.” Loudly, the poets in the back of the room laughed. I laughed. He laughed. A surprise and a stark relief.

Time Is a Mother is Vuong’s third book. In 2016, he published his debut book of poems, Night Sky with Exit Wounds, a collection steeped in childhood and ancestral memory. Poems of napalm skies and the fall of Saigon, the deep, unpatchable wound that results from being the product of war (of his grandparents, a Vietnamese “farm girl” and an American soldier, he writes, “no bombs = no family = no me.”) Three years later, he published his first novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, to widespread acclaim, earning him, among other accolades, a place on the National Book Award longlist; a film adaptation with A24; and a press tour more typical of a pop star than a poet, from NPR to Late Night with Seth Meyers. He partnered with luxury brands. My sister read him in her book club. And shortly thereafter, though unrelatedly, he was named a MacArthur “Genius.”

There is always a question of what an artist will do after achieving a breakout success, particularly one who has managed to do so with a work that doesn’t appear particularly commercial: an experimental novel that is as much autofiction as artist’s statement, combining the narrative, epistolary, and lyric traditions. What has followed, with Time Is a Mother, is a capacious collection of poems, containing many voices which together create a bold and thrilling departure.

 . . . there are ghosts in these poems. But there is also a capacity for play. Alternating between these tones—sometimes in the space of the line—is itself a contemporary gesture.

When I say these poems are funny, I do not refer to irony, though of course there is some of that: “Can you believe my uncle worked at the Colt factory for / fifteen years only to use a belt at the end?” There are also jokes, one-liners—“It’s true I’m all talk and a French tuck”—and absurdist images of poodles-turned-ghosts and dinosaurs twerking. The diction and references are not only contemporary but internet-fluent: “I used to be a fag now I’m lit. Ha.” In the poem “Not Even,” he alludes to the SoundCloud rapper Lil Peep, who died of an opiate overdose at twenty-one.

Instances of wit and levity are a formal maneuver, gasps of relief interrupting stretches of emotional intensity. But they also signal a shift, a declaration on the part of Vuong. To those who understand him as the sad, gay Vietnamese American poet who writes sad, gay Vietnamese American poems: you don’t know me at all. 

Ocean Vuong.
Photo by Tom Hines.

This refusal is accomplished in part by the sheer variety of the collection. There are persona poems like “Old Glory,” which flays the casually violent language common to a familiar brand of toxic bro: “You truly / murdered. You had me dying over here. / Bro, for real though, I’m dead.” And poems that take as their subject other people’s family histories, like “Nothing,” in which Vuong moves with elegance through the portal of his partner’s grandmother’s recipe for rye to a Dresden-bound train, passing through Auschwitz in 1944: “When the guard asked your / grandmother if she was Jewish, she shook her head, half-lying.”

And the poems that do return to Vuong’s own well-trod family history often do so obliquely. In “Amazon History of a Former Nail Salon Worker,” a monthly accounting of items tells the story of a relationship between mother and son. (Vuong’s own mother worked as a nail salon technician.) Interspersed with the chemical tools of the trade—the bleach and carcinogenic solvents—are birthday cards, basketball shorts, “Coppertone Sunblock, 6 oz.” The lurking presence of over-the-counter painkillers of increasing frequency and strength give way eventually to headscarves from “Chemo-Glam” and T-shirts for breast cancer awareness, then finally an urn. But even after death, a pair of socks are purchased. The poem reminds us—after news has emerged from the warehouse floors of that eponymous tech giant that workers denied bathroom breaks are routinely urinating into bottles—that the body under capitalism is tethered to the commerce which both feeds it and feeds on it. Vuong’s own mother, Rose, died of stage 4 breast cancer at the age of fifty-four.

To be sure, there are ghosts in these poems. But there is also a capacity for play. Alternating between these tones—sometimes in the space of the line—is itself a contemporary gesture, mimetic of how we scan without pause from news of ongoing police violence (one poem in the collection is dedicated to Tamir Rice) to memes about Pete Davidson, just as we achieve glimpses of beauty amid a seemingly impenetrable miasma. In Vuong, these somber moments bask in levity’s afterglow, allowing him renewed energy to break our hearts in all the ways he knows how.

If his strategies have shifted, the poems themselves provide clues as to why. In one, he recalls a young woman at a party, telling him he’s lucky—“You’re gay plus you get to / write about war and stuff. I’m just white. [Pause] I got nothing”—revealing an awareness, perhaps a resentment, for how identity is cheapened even as it becomes a saleable product: “Because everyone knows yellow pain, pressed into American letters, turns / to gold.” In another, he states it more plainly:

stop writing

about your mother they said

but I can never take out

the rose

In “Künstlerroman,” German for artist’s novel, we’re given the epic. Watching a cassette tape rewind, we see a suited man walk backward through the Tiffany lamp-lit sitting rooms of book parties, caviar spoons, and flutes of champagne; through award ceremonies, pursued by the relentless flashes of cameras, the inquiries of hungry reporters; through cornfields and trains and through time: the Afghanistan and Iraq wars in reverse, the towers made whole; through loves and great violence, we arrive at an original hurt.

Because that is why we write. Beyond the accolades, if ever they come. In this next stage of his celebrated career, Vuong commits himself again to looking hard at the thing that hurts and, in doing so, rejects the seductive simplicity of the book jacket copy or the internet. Beyond sheer beauty, these poems delight in the harrowing middle, the lewd joke at the funeral—what we crawl toward and what keeps us crawling.

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