Ocean Vuong, Time Is a Mother (Cape Poetry 2022)
This book is dedicated ‘for Peter’ (who I’m guessing is the poet’s partner) and ‘for my mother, Lê Kim Hồng, called forward’. The inside front flap confirms what the dedication implies:
In this deeply intimate second poetry collection, Ocean Vuong searches for life among the aftershocks of his mother’s death, embodying the paradox of sitting within grief while being determined to survive beyond it. … Vuong contends with personal loss, the meaning of family and the value of joy in a perennially fractured American spirit.
In a 2020 interview with Seth Meyers (on YouTube here) promoting his novel On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, Vuong spoke beautifully of his relationship with his mother. She must have died soon after the interview.
This is not a single-focus collection. It opens with ‘The Bull’, a dream-like encounter between a bull and the narrator as a boy (you can hear Vuong read it at this link). Like a dream, the poem invites a range of interpretations: could it be about vague adolescent guilt (‘I was a boy – which meant I was a murderer / of my childhood’), or religion (‘my god / was stillness. My god, he was still there’), or ambivalence about sex (‘I didn’t / want him. I didn’t want him to / be beautiful’), or a psychotic episode? It’s a suitably uncanny introduction to the book as a whole, which is – if nothing else – hard to pin down.
The next couple of poems likewise don’t insist on a single theme: if anything, mental illness seems to be taking centre stage. The first long poem, ‘Dear Peter’, is a verse letter apparently written in a psych hospital (it begins ‘they treat me well / here’).
But given the context of the poet’s mother’s death, these poems can be read as ’embodying’ the profoundly unsettling effects of grief. The last lines of ‘The Bull’, foe example, reveal that behind the image of the bull lies a sense of oneself as a grieving animal:
enough to hold. I reached for him. I reached - not the bull - but the depths. Not an answer but an entrance the shape of an animal. Like me.
As in Vuong’s novel On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous (my blog post here), there’s a complex interplay between the author’s identity as a young gay man who migrated to the USA from Vietnam as a child, and his relationship to his mother and her experiences both before and after migration. For example, ‘Not Even’ (page 35) starts out with a witty take on the changing social status of gay men:
Hey I used to be a fag now I'm a checkbox. The pen tip jabbed in my back, I feel the mark of progress.
Further on, a young woman at a party says to the poet: ‘You’re so lucky. You’re gay plus you get to write about war and stuff. I’m just white.’ The next lines are:
Because everyone knows yellow pain, pressed into American letters, turns to gold. Our sorrow Midas touched. Napalm with a rainbow afterglow.
But the poem doesn’t stay at that satirical level. It goes to deeply felt issues of ‘war and stuff’, including the kindness of a stranger and, inevitably, his mother’s death, until it arrives at a stunning metaphor for emergence from grief – which I won’t quote here because you really do need to read the whole four pages to get its full effect. A slightly different version has been published by the Poetry Foundation website at this link.
Even a poem such as ‘Old Glory’, a non-rhyming sonnet that lists common US turns of phrase, doesn’t depart far from the theme of death and loss. It begins, ‘Knock ′em dead, big guy’, and ends, ‘I’m dead.’
As usual, I want to look at some of the poetry in close-up. I’ve picked page 75 arbitrarily (it’s my age – at least it was when I started this blog post), but it happens to fall part way through ‘Dear Rose’, the most powerful and interesting poem in the collection. You can read the whole poem at this link, with an elegant introduction by Ben Lerner.
For context, it’s a long poem, 33 eight-line stanzas, framed (like On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous) as an address to the poet’s mother. It recalls key moments from her life: a schoolhouse destroyed by napalm when she was six years old; her ostracism in Vietnam as the son of a white US soldier; her brother shot dead for stealing a chicken to feed her. Intermingled with these historical moments are some apparently random elements: the sight of an ant carrying its dead brother; memories of his mother making fish sauce from the salted corpses of ‘a garbage bag of anchovies’. Page 75 goes from mid-stanza 17 to stanza 21. In the image below, disregard the first word, a carry over from the previous line. It may help to know that ‘their’ in the first line refers to the fermenting anchovies:
First, a word about punctuation. There isn’t any. Even line-break and stanza-breaks don’t function as punctuation. One effect of this is to slow the reader down. Several times, even in this short passage, you have to stop and realise you’ve moved on to a new thought. The transition point isn’t always clear. In what follows you may well have a different notion of where the sense breaks fall. It’s worth noticing how meaning is often carried over the line-breaks and stanza-breaks (technical term: enjambment). The effect varies, but there’s usually a moment of suspense that’s resolved at the start of the next line (‘almost /-sauce’, ‘dissolved / by time’), or a slight surprise as the meaning changes or enlarges (‘like an animal / being drowned’, ‘the largest thing you knew / after god’).
enter within months their meat will melt into brown mucus rot almost -sauce the linear fish-spine dissolved by time at last pungent scent of ghosts
The fermenting anchovies are not a pretty sight, or smell. They entered the poem as a memory in their own right, but by this stage they’ve come to represent the process of memory, or perhaps of grief: there’s a promise that they will dissolve and develop into something useful, even delicious, but first there’s a lot of painful emotion (‘brown mucus rot’) to be endured. Not yet sauce, they are all that remains of those who have died, ghosts.
of ghosts you said you named me after a body of water ′cause it's the largest thing you knew after god I stare at the silvered layers
This abrupt shift of subject is one of many in this poem and elsewhere in Vuong’s poetry. The poem’s attention comes up out of the murk to a clear, simple memory, a many-times told tale, that speaks loud and clear how much his mother treasured him. But then:
after god I stare at the silvered layers the shadowed line between two pressed fish is a finger in the dark gently remembered
There’s a difference between the familiar stories of the past, and the way some memories come unbidden and partial, ‘gently’, sometimes without context, like a shadowed line in the fermenting jar. In this case, it’s ‘a finger in the dark’ that’s remembered.
in the dark his finger on my lips Ma his shhh your friend the man watching me while you worked the late shift in the Timex clock factory why am I thinking this now the gasped throats mottled pocked fins gently the door its blade of amber light widening as it opened shhh it sounds like an animal being drowned as you churned the jar your yellow-white arms pink fish guts foaming up gently you must remember gently the man he's in the '90s still his face a black rose closing do you know
This feels like a memory of sexual abuse. As I read it, the question, ‘Why amI thinking this now?’, is answered in the following words: ‘the gasped throats /mottled pocked fins’. Something about the image of the anchovies brings this memory up from the depths. The stanza break here is brilliant: the man’s ‘shhh’ sounds like an animal, and then the first words of the next stanza, ‘being drowned’, tie the memory back to the image of the anchovies as well as leaving no doubt about the nastiness of the remembered incident. I’m fascinated by the repetition of ‘gently’: usually with implications of tenderness, here it suggests stealth – both on the man’s part and on the way the memory steals into consciousness.
Colour is important in this poem. Pink, red, blue, amber, brown, white and black recur, each with a range of connotations, as if the disparate elements of the poem are tied together with coloured threads. The ominous blade of light here is the same colour as the New England light beneath which his mother started the fish sauce, as her hair, and as the anchovies themselves. The description of the man’s face as a black rose contrasts to Vuong’s mother, Hồng – meaning ‘rose’ – who is sometimes describes as pink, sometimes white.
The last phrase ‘do you know’ is the classic question of the abused child to the parent who might have been expected to protect them. Such a question demands to be included in this letter to the poet’s dead mother. But it goes no further, as the mother now speaks, beginning with the same phrase:
closing do you know what it's like my boy my boy you said sweating above the jar to be the only one hated the only one the white enemy of your own country your own face
You could read this as the mother being incapable of hearing the son’s story. And you’re probably right. But it’s like the extraordinarily powerful moment in On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous when Little Dog comes out to his mother, and just as he thinks his big dramatic moment is over she says, ‘Now I have something to tell you.’ It might not be ideal parenting for a mother to burden her little son with a story like this, but this is not a poem of reproach. Far from it. The poet is acutely aware of what his mother has endured – and by implication he has been aware of it since he was very young (‘My boy my / boy’), and it’s her life struggles and triumphs that
face the trees they were roaring above us red leaves leaving little cuts in the sky gently I touched your elbow the fish swirling in their gone merry-go-round
The final lines on this page bring us back to the moment when the mother is stirring the anchovies with her attentive son beside her. The ‘red leaves leaving little cuts / in the sky’ suggests that the exchange has left both of them still wounded, but this time ‘gently’ surely does suggest tenderness, and the merry-go-round is ‘gone’ – the issue can be left behind.
Over the page, as you’d expect, there is further complexity. As with fish sauce, the poem’s disparate elements, many of them horrible in themselves, are mixed together and allowed to work on each other to become an unexpectedly beautiful new thing. If you have a chance, do read the whole thing.
I read Time Is a Mother in honour of World Pride, which has recently dominated my part of the world. The book turns out to be a salutary counterweight to the relentlessly manic imagery with which commercial culture signifies its openness to the LGBTQIA+ community: self-questioning, generous and deeply serious.