At the Beginning of Hope: On Ocean Vuong’s “Time Is a Mother”

THERE ARE MOMENTS when grief enters a body only to be released by that same body remembering that there is a life still to be lived.

Ocean Vuong’s piercing Time Is a Mother, his second poetry collection, delves deeply into how he survives the death of his mother. A central theme in Vuong’s work is his love for the woman who named him Ocean because “it’s the largest thing she knew / after god.” This line from “Dear Rose” is one of many intimate poems that return us to his first chapbook, Burnings; his debut collection, Night Sky with Exit Wounds; and also to On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeousa novel that takes the shape of a series of letters written by a Vietnamese American son to his illiterate mother. Time Is a Mother Vuong continues’s exploration and questioning of the meaning of grief, of family, and the toll it takes on the body and mind in the wake of the Vietnam War.

Vuong reveals early in the collection the peace he makes with the physical death of his mother. In “Snow Theory,” he writes:

What we’ll always have is something we lost
In the snow, the dry outline of my mother
Promise me you won’t vanish again, I said
She lay there awhile, thinking it over

Vuong solidifies that the physical death of his mother will not overshadow her outline of a life lived; he will hold her and the memories they created together in his body.

Later, Vuong sits the reader down in a living room, making us privy to a family movie reel that is filled with images etched in terror and beauty. “Beautiful Short Loser” begins, “Stand back, I’m a loser on a winning streak.” There is a force in Vuong’s words and his use of the imperative that implicates the reader on the page. As we read, we cannot but help to turn inward to examine our own family reels. The poem continues and we eavesdrop on memories like:

Can you believe my uncle worked at the Colt factory for
fifteen years only to use a belt at the end?

Talk about discipline. Talk about good lord.

Maybe he saw that a small thing moving through a large
thing is more like a bird in a cage than a word in the mouth.

Nobody’s free without breaking open.

It is through Vuong’s acceptance of death that there is a coming alive — a remembrance that beauty rests during and after a life lived. Vuong closes “Beautiful Short Loser”:

Because where I’m from the trees look like family
laughing in my head.

Because I am the last of my kind at the beginning of hope.

Because what I did with my one short beautiful life —
was lose it

on a winning streak.

We learn later in the collection, just as we learn here of the uncle’s suicide, that though the losses accumulate, hope too is a mother. Vuong tells us that we must embrace both in order to fully grieve, so that there is room to live. Vuong is a poet who leaves it all on the page. In “Rise & Shine,” one feels his vulnerability in searing images and memories:

Scraped the last $8.48
from the glass jar
Your day’s worth of tips

at the nail salon. Enough
for one hit. Enough
to be good

We can feel the unease of the son taking the mother’s hard-earned money. Yet, to make it right, to find solace in the act, Vuong juxtaposes the stealing with creation and love as the boy makes breakfast for his mother who will wake soon:

four yolks into a day
-white bowl spoon
the shells. Scallions hiss

in oil. A flick
of fish sauce, garlic crushed
the way you

taught me. The pan bubbling
into a small possible
sun. I am

a decent son. Salt
& pepper. A sprig
of parsley softened

It is in lines like these that we find Vuong’s deep love for his mother. He will not abandon her. He will care for her even when he must escape himself.

Vuong leads the reader through a poetic landscape where life and death merge. The poet calls attention to the dichotomy between the two and how we can sit with both to embrace the entrance of death and grief with grace.

One of the most evocative poems in the collection, “Not Even,” sounds as if Vuong is breaking us down with one-liners, punch lines, and lines that cut the body open to make us look at the devastation that war leaves on a family. Vuong is at his best when he writes with an edge, humorous at times, yet raw and vulnerable. Vuong tells us, “I made it out by the skin of my griefs.” And, “They say the earth spins and that’s why we fall but everyone / knows it’s the music. / It’s been proven difficult to dance to machine-gun fire.” Vuong returns to his mother as the poem ends when he writes:

I caved and decided it will be joy from now on. Then
everything opened. The lights blazed around me into a
white weather

and I was lifted, wet and bloody, out of my mother, into the
world screaming

and enough.

Vuong’s “enough” symbolizes an acceptance of self. And in this realization, there can be more room for joy as Vuong writes, “Body, doorway that you are, be more than what I’ll pass / through. / Stillness. That’s what it was.” Vuong’s image of birth symbolizes how he has entered many worlds where his resolve to exist was tested. His mother’s life-giving strength carries him onward without her.

At the center of the collection, “Künstlerroman” is the most telling poem of Vuong’s poetic journey. In the poem, we witness Vuong’s walk back through episodes of his life and see how each has shaped him into the poet he has become. It is Vuong’s attention to word choice and pacing that gives this poem a cinematic quality, a movie reel of the poet’s past. Vuong writes, “After walking forever through it all, I make it to the end. / The REWIND button flashes red __ red __ red. / I sit down and push the button. The screen flicks on,” and Vuong directs us through a myriad of images that include domestic abuse, his becoming a presence in the poetic world, the death of friends, and the numbness and healing felt in his life. Yet Vuong once again returns to what is at the core of Time Is a Mother — his mother, in order to let her go:

The tape scrambles and I see the boy dancing with his
mother in the front yard in the ’97 nor’easter, snow floating
back up the sky as he twirls under her shadow — cast larger
than life by sodium lights. The flakes going up to thicken
god’s pillow for his never-ending sleep.

If you have ever heard Vuong speak of his mother, then you will know that the poet has devoted his craft to honoring her narrative. Vuong often speaks about the love and deep recognition he has for women who have come from destruction and create life. Vuong honors his mother in this collection along with those lost and scarred by the aftermath of war. “Dear Rose” (Rose is the American name of Vuong’s mother) asks us to look at the cost of war, internal and external, and what it does to our humanity:

empty as a word
-less mind stop writing
about your mother they said
but I can never take out
the rose it blooms back as my own

The poems in Time Is a Mother Give us a path to examine the complexities of what it means to lose a mother, and what it means to embrace family and the self even when we want to look away. In Vuong’s tender yet unflinching words, we are reminded that only a mother can carry a beating heart within her body. And through it all, Vuong survives to tell us, “You are something made, then made / to survive — which means you are somebody’s son.”

¤

Donnelle McGee is the author of the novel Ghost Man (Sibling Rivalry Press), Shine (Sibling Rivalry Press), and Nakeda collection of poetry (Unbound Content).

Leave a Comment