Review of “Time Is a Mother”: Ocean Vuong goes beyond the edge | Arts


Ocean Vuong’s second collection of poetry, “Time is a Mother,” explores how the passage of time shapes the intimacy of human relationships. Both mournful and festive, the collection echoes his past work in its fixation with time. Here he explores his changing characteristics – how he is both violent and protective, erasing and preserving. Poems in the collection such as “Almost Human” and “Not Even” recall his groundbreaking poem “Someday I’ll Love the Ocean Vuong” in the speakers’ inner dialogue with themselves. The prosaic “Nothing” and “Künstlerroman”, filled with ordinary landscapes enlivened by a desire for intimacy, recall his sensational first novel “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous”. Yet Vuong’s writing also matured. Moments of eruptive joy fragment the nostalgia and melancholy that define his landscapes. Honoring the persistence of grief, Vuong also holds to the belief that something must exist beyond. Ultimately, “Time Is a Mother” both preserves and expands on the poignant verses readers have come to expect from Vuong.

For Vuong, intimacy and distance are often two sides of the same coin. Someone with whom he has shared a myriad of experiences quickly becomes inscrutable, and another who for years has been an outsider becomes, in a sudden turn of events, painfully close. Although he draws inspiration from his own lived experiences, the feeling he describes appears to be universal. In “American Legend,” a car accident literally collides two emotionally distant people in a startling moment of communion: “I wanted to, finally, feel it / against me – & / it worked.” Vuong continues, “he slammed /into me & /we hugged /for the first time/in decades. It was perfect/&fake, like money/on fire.

Indeed, it is in these moments of silent and electrifying transgression that Vuong’s collection shines. In his prose poem “Nothing”, the Vuong speaker recalls shoveling snow with a loved one. Accurate descriptions of the ethereal landscape sit side by side with devastating assertions delivered in a neutral, discordant tone: “It’s so quiet that every flake in my mantle has life. I used to cry in a genre no one read. Later, Vuong gives voice to the elusiveness and paradox of human connection. His description of one person’s expansive multitudes is distinctly Whitmanian: “There is so much room in one person that there should be more of us here.” Traveler who is inches away but never here, are you warm where you are? »

Perhaps the most memorable poem is the last in the entire collection, “Woodworking at the End of the World”. Its introduction is faithful to the low-key, piercing drama that has come to characterize Vuong’s verse: “In a field, after all, a lamppost / shining on a patch of grass.” / Barely come to life, I lay down in its warmth / & waited for a path. In the poem, the speaker meets a boy, presumably their younger self. Vuong’s brief exchange with the boy from the end of the world is mythical, bordering on parable: “he kissed me as if he put a shard of porcelain / on my cheek. / Trembling, I turned to him. I turned and found, crumpled on the grass, the faded red shirt. The boy, like so many other people who populate Vuong’s pages, is both foreign and intimate, inscrutable and surprisingly familiar. Its simple yet beautiful language illuminates the enduring bond between speaker and boy, building towards a fitting climax for both the poem and the collection as a whole.

Ultimately, Vuong’s new collection is, quite literally, full of fear. Different fears mingle, merge: a fear of loss. A fear of distance and, sometimes, a fear of closeness – or at least the inner truths closeness reveals about ourselves. A fear of connections that dissipate before they have a chance to begin. The lines that seal “Time Is a Mother” are delivered in a moment of telltale catharsis: “Then it came to me, my life. & I remembered my life / like an ax handle, halfway, remembers the tree. / & I was free. The finale to Vuong’s sprawling poetic vision is both dangerous and peaceful, elegiac and triumphant. Vuong’s text vibrates with attention to fear. It is through this emotion that he renders such luminous meditations on his life, and on the people who have come to change it. Vuong is afraid, that is, he refuses not to love.
—Editor Isabella B. Cho can be reached at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @izbcho.

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