"Time Is A Mother" by Ocean Vuong

By Ocean Vuong

Reviewed by Shari

ISBN 9780593300237

I happened upon a radio interview with Ocean Vuong recently (Terry Gross, NPR, Fresh Air). He was being interviewed about his newest collection of poetry; Time is a Mother. I was taken by Vuong’s vulnerability as he spoke, elegiacally and with grief, about a time when, at a book signing, where his mother was in attendance, the audience applauded her, the mother of this increasingly famous poet.  Vuong tenderly articulated the heartbreak of hearing this applause. He’d come to understand his mother as the true artist, an immigrant from Vietnam, who’d spent her years working in a nail salon. He believed that to be a true survivor like his mother one had to be creative, and that survival might be, in his mind the highest and greatest act of creativity. One worthy of applause.

This collection of poetry was published after Vuong’s mother died of breast cancer. He ritualized grief in each poem, with his mother/muse bound to each stanza, even if the poem wasn’t about her. This collection also, sits under the spell of a title that holds a double entendre. One, time is a visceral bedmate when we’ve lost someone essential to our identity (someone like our mother) and two that time, profanely yet sacredly, can, in all its rawness, hurt like a mother.

In the Fresh Air interview Voung read from one of his poems, Amazon History of a Former Nail Salon Worker. It’s a list poem with each stanza defined by months, and what was in his late mother’s amazon que, as she died of cancer. This is the first stanza:

Advil (ibuprofen), 4 pack
Sally Hansen Pink Nail Polish, 6 pack
Clorox Bleach, industrial size
Diane hair pins, 4 pack
Seafoam handheld mirror
“I Love New York” T-shirt, white, small

Vuong, speaks to this poem as way to track the debris of living and that, objects speak clearly and that we buy because we hope. Vuong uses the entire course of this collection to inhabit many themes, queerness, sexuality, alienation, growing up as a person of color. Yet, we keep coming back to his origins, the indelible imprint of a mother on a body, even on a body of work.

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