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Ars Poetica as the Maker: The Metapoetics of Ocean Vuong’s Time Is a Mother

Photo by Tom Hines

By Subin Lee

Lest we forget, a morgue is also a community center.

In my language… the word for love is Yêu.

And the word for weakness is Yếu.

Ocean Vuong’s Time Is a Mother is a collection of juxtapositions–the thin, diacritical line between “love” and “weakness”–and an astonishing commemoration of the ways in which time gives and takes from us told through a speaker fresh with grief. The title prescribes Time as a surrogate parent, his mother’s killer but also her replacement for comfort. Vuong’s novel On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous explains how a mother can also be a monster, and how, “to be a monster is to be a hybrid signal, a lighthouse: both shelter and warning at once.” By equating time with a mother, then, Vuong prescribes characteristics of nurturing as well as fear. The title also evokes a short-form of cursing, injecting the intricately collated poems with unaffected, conversational language and banal scenes: “brushing my teeth at two / in the morning I say / over my shoulder / you guys you guys I’m serious.”


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Birthday Card–Son–Pop-up Mother and Son effect

At the book’s center is “Amazon History of a Former Nail Salon Worker,” a heart-wrenching poem that exemplifies the poet’s ability to breathe life into the mundane. The piece is penned in the style of found poetry and organized by progressing month in stanza under which nail salon tools and everyday artifacts of a mother are listed before petering out as the items decrease. The collection’s ethos as a whole becomes captured here; it is simultaneously an elegy for everything lost and as a valentine for the agency and the power that language brings with which children of immigrants know intimately. The strength of the poem lies in its unassuming nature–Vuong’s ability to make the widely shared minutiae of life into self-expression. Time Is a Mother comes on the heels of his mother’s death (as well as the public acclaim of his debut novel dedicated to her) and the listed items, like the repetition and increased dosage of painkillers, mirror the effects of sickness increasing as time passes. Articles of motherly affection are sandwiched between the clinical artifice of nail salon chemicals which Vuong believes caused his mother’s cancer. It reads as simple retelling, but the poem captures what Vuong does best— alchemizing themes that are pointedly idiosyncratic yet command empathy in a sleight-of-hand semi-biography.

“I used to be a fag now I’m a checkbox.

The pen tip jabbed in my back, I feel the mark of progress”

While Vuong has accrued fame for his poetry, he is also wary of how his work has become privy to the romanticization and tokenization ascribed by opportunists. The Vietnamese-American poet has been pedestalized as a Saigon-born gay author and refugee of war, accruing accolades like the MacArthur 'Genius' Grant. The poem “Not Even” addresses the ways in which the art produced by his skill is readily tokenized by identity-based artistry or prescribed a diminutive role of record-keeping for the “diasporic gaze.” Because his work and identity as an author is so drenched in the cultural mythology surrounding Ocean Vuong, the lines between Vuong’s life and his art wrap around each other. In the refusal of the American pedestal, the persona of Time Is a Mother reconciles with the complex limelight by articulating his own reasons for writing: Vuong creates to preserve, in the face of everything instructing against that.

Stand back, I”m a loser on a winning streak.”

As a first generation, immigrant child who was brought to America to obtain opportunities that weren’t accessible to other family members, Vuong becomes tied to the servitude of previous generations as repayment for a dual-edged sacrifice. To be an immigrant child is a privilege reared from loss. Despite this, the poem “Beautiful Short Loser” celebrates and cultivates an identity around the ostensibly unnoteworthy act of losing. This poem and the entire collection can be seen as a survival guide from a “loser” who has lost a vessel to speak through and for as an immigrant son who spoke and lived for his mother. “All the things I’d written, it was all to try to take care of her. I went to school for her, I worked for her—she was the source,” Vuong said in a Time interview. “When that was taken away, I didn’t have anything else to answer to. And so I finally wrote for myself.” For the rock-bottom loser, words seem to be concurrent to survival. Amidst the destruction of the whole world in Time as a Mother, writing becomes the one tool of creation.

"all I have to do is write

the right words & I'm beside you (again)...

let me spell out

these m-a-p-l-e-s just right

so we'll have a few more seconds"

The poem “Dear T,” addressed to a past lover, explicitly spells out this spirit for language imbued throughout Time Is a Mother with sincere solemnity; writing, for Vuong, reanimates everything and everyone he has lost. The aching, yearning, grieving persona of this poem first and foremost identifies as a writer instead of a son. Instances of similar metapoetics leap out from almost every poem in the collection and affirm the compulsory relationship between writer and writing. From “Skinny Dipping”: “I leapt / from the verb / taking off.” From “You Guys”: “I’m sorry / for being useful only / in language.” From “Nothing”: “let the stanza be one room.” More than in any other of his works, Time Is a Mother seems to reckon with Vuong’s identity as a recognized author and defines the purpose for which he writes: words are akin to divination.

“reader I’ve

plagiarized my life

to give you the best

of me”

Vuong’s reach is not a fluke of the times; it is neither his queerness nor his cultural background that deserves credit for the resonance of writing but his intentionality. This cheeky, self-cognizant line from the penultimate poem of the collection spells out just how aware of this skill Vuong is. Despite the poem’s title “Dear Rose,” in dedication to his late mother, this line addresses the reader to acknowledge how his authorship has the ability to revive and define the dead, to face death and the multiplicity of his life and the people alive in it. His poetry is beauty despite, despite. For a non-native speaker with the memory of a mouth full of indecipherable words, language is survival. In Time Is a Mother, Vuong’s desire for survival is palpable, and his joy for making art from this survival feels earnestly tender. Discarding the American mythic canon demanded by his success as well as the filial piety married to his cultural background, Vuong's words are an unflinching celebration of himself, of authorship, and of loss. With unadulterated conviction and dexterous defiance, Ocean Vuong wrestles with language and finds within himself his best parts of a "beautiful short loser."

"How else do we return to ourselves but to fold

The page so it points to the good part"

Subin Lee is a third-year history major at UCLA. If she had free time, she would mail love letters to out-of-state friends, go on long drives, and finally call home.

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