Book Review: Ocean Vuong’s Time Is A Mother grapples with grief and love
time is a mother
By Ocean Vuong
Poetry/Vintage/Hardcover/$33.95/112 pages/Buy here
4 out of 5
Three years after his mother’s death from cancer, Vietnamese-American poet Ocean Vuong has released a new collection of poems.
His late mother Le Kim Hong (“Hong” means “rose” in Vietnamese) is mentioned only a few times in the collection, but is, in many ways, its absent center.
Vuong was born in 1988 on a farm outside Ho Chi Minh City. When he was young, his family left Vietnam, arriving in a refugee camp in the Philippines before settling in the United States.
Her father later abandoned them and her mother, who was illiterate, got a job at a nail salon.
Time Is A Mother contains many of the usual Ocean Vuong ingredients – intimacy, family, violence and the specter of war in Vietnam. This book tackles what it means to live after the death of your mother.
It’s more experimental than Vuong’s latest collection, his debut feature Night Sky With Exit Wounds (2016), which won the prestigious TS Eliot Award.
Time Is A Mother’s works range from a former nail salon worker’s Amazon shopping story to Nothing, a voluminous stanza – or prose poem, call it what you will – where a loaf of rye dough rises.
The Rise & Shine narrator breaks some eggs into a bowl and makes a “smashed/as you/taught me” garlic scallion omelet.
It’s not hard to see the appeal of Vuong, a darling of the literary world and recipient of a MacArthur “genius” fellowship.
His poetry, austere and evocative, has the accessibility of the spoken word, leans towards the confessional and is not lacking in beautiful phrases. The lines often lend themselves well to the quote: “I / plagiarized my life / to give you the best / of me…”
He has a keen ear for rhythm and what the poet TS Eliot might describe as “a precise match of form and material”.
Vuong feels the world with his words, holding images in his mind and letting them blend into each other in surprising ways. On the page, as in real life, his voice is soft, melancholic and direct.