Book review: Lost and found in Ocean Vuong’s ‘Time Is a Mother’

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This cover image released by Penguin Press shows “Time is a Mother” by Ocean Vuong. (Penguin Press via AP)

“Time Is a Mother” by Ocean Vuong (Penguin Press)

Life’s aftermath ebbs and flows throughout Ocean Vuong’s poetry collection “Time Is a Mother.” An ode to his mother’s passing, Vuong orbits the contours of grief, embedding them into clausal configurations and juxtaposed tones. These structures are reflected in Vuong’s themes of time and place, parent and child, nation and individual, and strength and weakness as he unfolds the logic of loss.

In “Snow Theory,” the poet lies in his mother’s outline in the snow, “something being destroyed in a blizzard.” In “Beautiful Short Loser,” he wears her wedding dress backwards in the street as he plays air guitar. “Dear Rose” recounts the violence that has shaped his mother’s life while uncovering the way language comes alive through visceral experience.

Though grounded in the loss of his mother, Vuong branches out to trace other instances of departure. Loss is a peaceful release, a sudden shift. His friend’s top surgery that makes them more whole, the fish with the narrator’s face before it swims away, a loaf of rye bread rising out of itself. Loss is fleeting transition. Loss is a violent transition, too. A dreamed car crash reveals Vuong’s desire to be closer to his father; still shots of the people of his home nation Vietnam insinuate the proximity between their life and death; the oversized outfits his relatives wear reminiscent of a country that no longer exists; his uncle’s suicide conveyed as a purposeful death.

Retrogression, lists and notes structure some of Vuong’s words, but the poet’s linguistic ferocity illuminates his mother’s spirit from the rays of memory.

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