Book Review: Ocean Vuong’s TIME IS A MOTHER

Updated: Jun 13

Following the critical success of On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous, Vuong returns with a paradoxical grammar of grief


Writing in the aftermath of his mother's passing, the Vietnamese-American poet designs a vernacular rooted in juxtapositions. Permanence contends with transience. Absence with presence. And time with itself. Vuong tests the boundaries of language--how it breaches, breathes, and succumbs to visceral human emotions, stretching the past into the future.



Loss shape-shifts. To lose someone is a loss. To grieve them is loss revisited. To continue in their absence is loss colluding with routine. What is striking about Vuong’s poetry is how loss never devolves into apathy. The twenty-eight poems in Time Is A Mother dwell in the fragile spaces between absence and Vuong’s reconciliation with the void. He knits together the strained relationship between personhood and nationhood, lamenting in Beautiful Short Loser, "I know. I know the room you’ve been crying in / is called America. / I’m sorry the door is not invented yet."


Loss shape-shifts. To lose someone is a loss. To grieve them is loss revisited. To continue in their absence is loss colluding with routine. What is striking about Vuong’s poetry is how loss never devolves into apathy.

Addressing personal history as a poet is often deliberate mining of misfortune--a practice akin to self-harm. And to remember is a burden as heavy as time. But brazenly enough, Vuong gives into the deep end of his formative memories with a practiced lens. In Amazon History of a Former Nail Salon Worker, he outlines his mother’s last twenty months through order history, suggesting her declining health and eventual passing. Her death marks the distinction between past and present as he toys with time's disconcerting nature. Parameters of a life lived--memory and time--are both violence and peace in his immediate world.


To recognize beauty is to eliminate ugliness often. To Vuong's credit, he is even-handed in underscoring the wins and the losses of his times. Desolation is cinematic, a contrast he deliberately draws to sharpen the impact. In Woodworking at the End of the World, he writes, "In a field, after everything, a streetlamp / shining on a patch of grass," heightening with "A chapel on the last day of war / That's how quiet he was," and ending the soft blow with "I remembered my life / the way an axe handle, mid-swing, remembers the tree." These plaintive images often associate themselves with historical figures (Van Gogh) and pop-culture landmarks (Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah).


Interestingly, he then addresses race and its perceived relation with literary stardom. In response to a white, heterosexual writer regretting the lack of turbulence and chaotic fertility one arguably requires for creating art, he writes, “Because everyone knows yellow pain, pressed into American letters, turns to gold / Our sorrows Midas touched. Napalm with a rainbow afterglow.” He mourns his ancestors, the minorities, his quiet relationships, and brings it all back to the nothingness he feels in his mother's absence. Lines soften between life and death, between happenstance and regular patterns. “Lest we forget, a morgue is also a community center,” he continues. Grief swallows hope, and hope swallows grief. A cycle ensues, one of obscurity and fleeting lucidity.


To be lit on fire by personal loss is a torment understood by a few with specificity. The most prominent poet of this decade certainly gets it right.



Hardcover, First Edition, 128 pages. Published on April 5th 2022 by Penguin Press.


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