…O sister, dropped seed—help me—
I was made to die but I’m here to stay.
From “The Last Dinosaur”
The much-anticipated Time is a Mother, Ocean Vuong’s second full-length collection, is defiant and bold without losing the careful, patient voice of Vuong’s previous work. Having already amassed numerous awards, including the Whiting Award and the MacArthur Fellowship, readers are right to expect greatness from Vuong, who is quickly establishing himself as one of the most important writers of the 21st century. Time is a Mother exceeds expectations as the author pushes boundaries and embraces discomfort without hesitation.
Time is a Mother is a brilliant follow-up to Vuong’s first novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, employing the same invocation of “Ma” in numerous poems as he explores lineage and legacy. The mother-son relationship seeps into many of the most powerful poems, including “Amazon History of a Former Nail Salon Worker,” a deceptively unassuming litany that captures the onset of chronic pain associated with completing manicures and pedicures each day. Amid typical supplies for the salon and increasingly powerful pain medication, Vuong slips in “Chemo-Glam cotton head scarf, sunrise pink,” “‘Warrior Mom’ Breast Cancer awareness T-shirt, pink and white” and, very near the end, “Eternity Aluminum Urn, Dove and Rose engraved, small.”
At the center of the collection, Vuong processes the loss of his mother, Rose, as well as the function of time. Perhaps the most clever inversion of time is “Künstlerroman,” a poem which opens with the speaker telling the reader, “After walking forever through it all, I make it to the end.” As the speaker presses rewind and stands before a screen, he witnesses his life in reverse. The allusion to Vuong’s novel, which falls into the Künstlerroman genre, is overt and helps to emphasize the journey of self-acceptance that echoes throughout the book. At one point in the poem, the speaker even admits, “I’m starting to root for him, on his way to dust.” The poem is replete with images of trauma and death, yet the final image features the speaker climbing back into the wreckage of a car and patiently waiting for the window to unshatter.
Vuong also addresses mental health and suicidal ideation, always through the lens of survival. “Dear Peter” is a remarkably tender epistle written from a mental health facility or hospital. The speaker is candid about his experience, at one point telling his lover,
I’m still afraid
how they move so much
like a heart
As the poem progresses, the speaker signals his devotion to both Peter and the healing process, telling Peter “…I swear/I’ll learn to swim/when I’m out once/& for all.” Vuong does not imply that survival is effortless, however. “Reasons for Staying,” another litany, collects memories and scenes that help tether Vuong to life, appropriating a common therapeutic practice that simultaneously lends authenticity to Vuong’s treatment of mental health and offers readers their own reasons to survive.
One of the things that draws me to Vuong’s writing is his willingness to experiment with form, structure and language. In addition to writing against time and challenging its confines, Vuong uses structure to further disrupt linear fluidity. His poems frequently utilize a style of enjambment that eschews natural speech, presenting fragments that time and again force the reader forward. On first read, this may feel jarring, perhaps even ineffective. However, Vuong’s occasional return to more traditional linebreaks reminds the reader that this disruption is intentional, highlighting the uncomfortable, often nonlinear movement from one pivotal scene of our lives to the next.
Time is a Mother perfectly renders the brilliance and grace that readers have come to associate with Ocean Vuong, reminding us all of his place among the best poets writing in America today.