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Time Is a Mother


Time Is a Mother

There, within the sharp, supple sweetness of Ocean Vuong’s TIME IS A MOTHER, lies both devastation and wry relief for anyone who knows what it is to grieve.

Vuong has said that “the only place I can control is the page,” and what marvelous control he wields over it. This book of poetry is a luminous remembrance for the mother he’s just lost. But, as it says on the first page, expect “Not an answer but / an entrance.” It is so tautly woven, a wonder only Vuong could craft, that even quoting it feels like a transgression. That line doesn’t end there, and it feels wrong to take it out of place. The context is the story, though every line is at once its own gut punch and jewel.

"If you’ve read Vuong’s work before, you know you can expect to be dazzled, and he thoroughly delivers. If you haven’t, TIME IS A MOTHER is an excellent introduction."

If you’ve read Vuong’s work before, you know you can expect to be dazzled, and he thoroughly delivers. If you haven’t, TIME IS A MOTHER is an excellent introduction. Vuong does intimate poetry so damned beautifully. His words cut in such a consistently surprising way. Yes, you’ll think, that is exactly an experience I’ve had, but he’s said it in such a way that it not only rings profoundly true but also contextualizes it so specifically that I come away from the line and the poem with a new understanding of the world and myself. And for those experiences you haven’t had, you’ll gain a deeper awareness that, as he says, doesn’t answer but unearths openings you never knew you could pass through.

That is, of course, what the best poetry does. Yet Vuong’s approach feels so effortlessly dazzling, at once fresh and familiar. It’s a challenge to describe his writing, because it’s nearly impossible to evoke exactly how he works his specific wonders. There is the writer, the writing and the reader, and the story takes place in the gaps between them. While that is always true, you can almost feel the spaces when Vuong creates them. You have to read him for yourself to truly experience it. And while his individual poems are marvels, the book as a whole makes for an experience --- visceral and eviscerating, pure and rich, utterly devouring.

Time is a mother, in every shape of that phrase --- that genius, droll, devastating title. Vuong weaves words in such surprising ways, revealing meaning we may never have considered. I hesitate to call this work a “master class” on language because the intention is not so flat as to “teach,” but the way he constructs and deconstructs language leaves the reader breathless and also with a heightened awareness of their breath. You’ll question everything you know of structure and meaning, yet somehow it feels like the most familiar lullaby.

So much of this book is measured, so when the desperation comes through, it feels like breaking into tears. It’s an exquisite kind of ecstasy. At the same time, there’s joy here, not to mention humor --- a reveling in the play of language, not only the work. Vuong writes with a sense of mischief as he bites back. Time is a mother.

Reviewed by Maya Gittelman on April 15, 2022

Time Is a Mother
by Ocean Vuong

  • Publication Date: June 6, 2023
  • Genres: Nonfiction, Poetry
  • Paperback: 128 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books
  • ISBN-10: 0593300254
  • ISBN-13: 9780593300251