Updated: May 30, 2022
Title: Time Is A Mother by Ocean Vuong Pub Date: Available Now Written By: Elliot Eatinger Summary:
Ocean Vuong’s sophomore poetry collection–the stories of life lived by him, others around him, and those long gone–is crafted into a four-part series that travel right into one another. Deeply intimate and reflective, while maintaining a sense of sharp humor and awareness even through tragedy, Time is a Mother captures an impossible range of emotion that only a masterful writer such as Vuong himself can depict.
Vuong returns with a triumph of craft that feels as if you are walking backwards and forwards with him through the poetic narrative, chasing down a deeply personal story forever in-progress.
I am back to talking about Ocean Vuong. It’s no secret how much I’ve come to adore his work since I read quite a lot of it during the pandemic and I even recently reviewed his novel On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. To me, it’s more than just anticipating a loved author’s work – it’s the exhilaration of setting off on an emotional journey and getting something new out of it each read.
In Time Is A Mother, the reader is dared to consider the paradox of life. Vuong shares stories of being molded by war, of gut-wrenching realities of queer identity, of loss that makes one look further inward until there might be nothing left to dig for. He shares just how brilliant it might feel to live in the chaos, to not turn a blind eye away from the pain but to take it all together – because neither life nor death exist in a vacuum. That is where we begin.
The four parts of the collection – titled by their respective Roman numerals – feel almost theatrical in their movement, leading threads through each and every page to keep you tied in. The prelude piece, titled “The Bull,” sets up the prevalent theme of watching one’s own journey and having nowhere to go but forward despite all that pulls you back. The bull in the poem is revered with fear and curiosity in equal measure, and as he reaches into the depths for answers, our story begins.
This structure helps to follow the conversations of thought. Starring in all four parts are mentions of Peter, whom the book is dedicated to; his family and closest friends, with a special tribute to Rose, his mother; the “bullet” that travels in and out of time, both literal and metaphorical; the concrete and abstract of parentage and the bearing it has on one’s existence.
But of course, there is the significance of time and that is perhaps the greatest unifier of the piece: “Time is a mother,” “time is a muhfucker,” time is a guardian and a villain and the most unchangeable force that we live around. Vuong’s discussion of time takes a different shape in each piece, offering the backdrops of a hundred different stories that we are taken through.
The cruelty of human history is familiar and prevalent, given in specific examples such as “Toy Boat,”, “The Punctum,” and “Not Even”; so is love, however, and preservation for the self and for others – “Dear Peter” and “Beautiful Short Loser” and “Woodworking at the End of the World.” That is to say, the collection is best kept together in this complexly-layered gift.
Vuong has never shied away from this complex confrontation in language, using cutthroat honest confessions intermingled with breathtaking metaphor. Some of the most provoking imagery came from the simplest of confessions, such as in the Part III piece, “Reasons for Staying”:
Because my uncle never killed himself—but simply died, on purpose. Because I made a promise. That the McDonald’s arch, glimpsed from the 2 am rehab window off Chestnut, was enough. That mercy is small but the earth is smaller. Summer rain hitting Peter’s bare shoulders. The ptptptptptptpt of it. Because I stopped apologizing into visibility. Because this body is my last address.
What we can garner from each and every reason – a promise – reveals almost what feels like a mirror and our own reflection staring back. The collection does not demand of its reader to search where their heart might lie in our continually chaotic world, but presents it to consider and sets off on its way.
There is no room to question where the heart of Time Is A Mother might be; it’s everywhere. “Dear Peter” and “Dear Rose” almost bookending the piece feels like two halves of a heart coming together, shaping the poetic labyrinth in which Vuong allows us to traverse. One speaks of the longing for a loved one during a difficult time away; the other recounts a son reaching out to his mother one last time. The parallel with these letters draws to the element of time once more – of memory and how precious it is:
I'm wearing your sea-green socks
to stay close I swear
I'll learn to swim when I’m out once & for all
Dear Rose: stop writing about your mother they said but I can never take out the rose it blooms back as my own pink mouth how can I tell you this when you’re always to the right of meaning
The structure of each piece is just as bountiful as the content itself – ranging from epistolary-style runthrough pieces that swallow the ideas whole, to provocative free verse that earns the attention it asks for on every page, and beyond. Vuong knows the form more than well enough to break it, to recreate it, to give a mouthpiece to feelings often lost to our own instincts. Grief, love, the complex mourning and celebration of being human – where do we find the right words or the right time for any of it?
Time Is A Mother allows the reader insight into that answer. It may not be a clear-cut answer. It may be an answer that takes you back through the book a dozen times in search of what Vuong means, amidst your own Künstlerroman.
Time is a mother, and there is no going back from the comfort of her arms – only forward.