Book Review: Time is a Mother – Ocean Vuong


Posted 3 months ago in Book Review

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Time is a Mother

Ocean Vuong

Penguin

“This is not poetry as a solution, but as a keening”

For Ocean Vuong, tense lives in the body. The past, the future: it all collides so physically. In the opening poem of this collection, ‘The Bull’, the speaker muses that:

‘I was a boy – /

which meant I was a murderer /

of my childhood.’

Elsewhere, in ‘Beautiful Short Loser’, a speaker pulled over by a cop ‘for dreaming’ announces, ‘I’m on the cliff of myself & these aren’t wings, they’re futures’. Okay, it’s a metaphor – but the poem before is called ‘Skinny Dipping’ and includes the lines: ‘I wanna go / down on you / anyway to leap // from the bridge / I’ve made / of my wrongs’. One leap away from the body is a poetic image: two incites a sense of falling. To live is to kill the self you were before.

This could have been the difficult second album: Vuong’s first collection, Night Sky with Exit Wounds, won a Forward Prize for Best First Collection and a T.S. Eliot Prize for Poetry; it was followed by an acclaimed fiction debut, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. Fans of those two books will find much to praise here – particularly in Vuong’s uncanny ability to twist an apparently mundane image into one that leaves you gasping – but Time strikes out its own path.

Written following his mother’s death (‘let me begin again now / that you’re gone Ma’) it recircles the meaning of death, the way in which life and joy and death coalesce. Sometimes this combination is bitter and darkly funny: ‘Can you believe my Uncle worked at the Colt factory for fifteen years only to use a belt at the end?’ and sometimes it’s frustrating: ‘look you say the trees / are falling they’re being / axed down’. How do we communicate loss? Is confusing the trees ‘falling’ with being ‘axed’ a problem of perspective or is it one of translation?

There are several conversations in these poems, particularly when the question of poetry-what-is-it-good-for comes up. ‘You Guys’ takes the form of an address, a train-of-thought rambling:

‘you guys are /

you listening I’m sorry /

for being useful only /

in language’

(The ‘guys’ are rabbits, which is revealed in an abrupt and very funny volta that also makes that ‘useful’ language even more suspicious.) Can we ever trust what the poet says? ‘I found / a payphone in the heart / of the poem’, he insists, but elsewhere argues: ‘it’s an old story, Ma, / anyone can tell it.’ It might be a gentle rebuke to the reader not to take Vuong’s speakers as being purely autobiographical; it also feels like a reminder to dwell in the text. If the only certainty are the words in front of us, they are enough. A place, like the body, where time can stretch and embrace grief. In a poem dedicated to Tamir Rice, the speaker offers an ekphrasis of the titular ‘Toy Boat’ ‘as if the seconds / could be entered / & never left’. This is not poetry as a solution, but as a keening: ‘Lest we forget, a morgue is also a community center.’

And somehow life goes on.

Words: Alice Wickenden

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