By Anya Shukla
I love Ocean Vuong; I love Ocean Vuong; I love Ocean Vuong so much! I first came across his work after impulse-buying "On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous," which is now one of my favorite books on this entire planet. His writing makes me feel every emotion in existence all at once.
I’ve read many books this year that feel aggressive in their grief. After reading these novels, heavy feelings just sit in my chest; I’m forced to carry the author’s emotional burden. Even though Vuong’s poetry deals with intense, difficult topics, the work doesn’t have an unhealthy physical impact. I’ll definitely cry, but it’s cathartic: I always feel better afterward.
Review: Ocean Vuong explores grief and loss in his second poetry collection, “Time Is a Mother.” Many of Vuong’s poems speak directly to his relationship with his mother, who passed away in 2019, and the heaviness of his emotions after her death. Time—the passage of time, going back in time—serves as a recurring theme, as do language and grammar.
Although Vuong’s writing is—as always—beautiful, “Time Is a Mother” lacks the power of his previous work. My Rating: 4.5/5.
What I Loved: In an NPR interview, Vuong mentions that he couldn’t have written poems like those in “Time Is a Mother” as a younger poet: “I would have been too uncertain.” In that sense, this collection feels like a growth—a new direction for Vuong as an artist—which is exciting to witness.
In this collection, Vuong experiments with new forms: most notably, found poetry. For the poem "Old Glory, he gathered everyday phrases, then repurposed them to showcase the connection between violence in our language and our society: “Knock ‘em dead, big guy. Go in there / guns blazing, buddy. You crushed / at the show. No, it was a blowout. No, / a massacre. Total overkill” (pg. 44).
Through “Old Glory,” Vuong says, he wanted to showcase the aggression inherent in casual language. “What is it about a culture that uses these terms as the only recognizable way to sort of celebrate each other?” he asks in an NPR interview. How does American syntax and lexicon provide insight into American norms? The fact that “Old Glory” is a found poem makes it all the more impactful: this brutality comes from our mouths all the time, and we think nothing of it.
Another standout is “Amazon History of a Former Nail Salon Worker,” where Vuong chronicles his mother’s Amazon history in the months before she passed away; as her health declines, we see her purchasing walkers and chemo scarves rather than Advil and nail polish. Vuong doesn’t clutter up the poem with description or exposition, instead choosing to let the items speak for themselves. I’d argue that this simplicity is the mark of a mature poet, one who knows exactly how much information to give the reader.
What I Didn’t Love: Although this collection still deals with trauma, loss, and addiction (along with other difficult topics), it feels lighter than Vuong’s past work. Unfortunately, I think that lightness made it harder for me to connect to the poems. This collection just didn’t hit me as consistently as “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous” or even “Night Sky With Exit Wounds.” The best poems were amazing—the ones mentioned above, along with any "Dear" poem (especially "Dear T," a poem to a former lover who passed away)—but several others didn’t have much of an individual impact.
A Quote I Would Like On Goodreads: “What we’ll always have is something we lost” (pg. 24).
Up next: "Freshwater" by Akwaeke Emezi.