Time Is A Mother by Ocean Vuong is a poetry collection which delves into the aftermath of the speaker’s mother, his queerness, and what it means to exist in America as Asian. The sophomore poetry collection is heavy in its use of themes, lyricality, and overall metaphor, that I was astounded with Vuong’s handle of language. The poetry bleeds, and it’s hard to put into words the length the collection works to show the wounds and contemplation that Vuong has imbued in each poem.
More particularly, I was drawn to ‘Dear Rose’, which is one of the last poems in the collection and begins in the same way that ‘On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous’ does using the line, “Let me begin again now”. In this way, it both contributes/continues the narrative from ‘Gorgeous’, as if this loss has been eating away at the speaker the whole entire time. The poem itself has lines such as “are you reading this dear/reader are you my mom yet” that ache with the want of his mother, something us, the reader, will never be able to give. The speaker knows this, but still he asks because it is the only thing he can do. Vuong delves into masculinity and the way we use language to mimic that of war in ‘Old Glory’ and ‘American Legend’. I recall reading ‘Künstlerroman’ in Freeman’s: Change and still I gravitate to the piece, and its line “The cake on the table, air returning to the boy’s pursed lips and the seven candles, one by one, begin to light, and the wish returns to his head where it’s truer for never being touched by language.” This desire and hope and sadness are all of what the speaker has left once their mother has left them. The collection ends with the line “& I was free.” which is the one final grief-filled note that, in many ways feels like there is something after all of the pain that the speaker has endured.
It is a beautiful, powerful, and tactful collection of poems that will stay with me for a long time.
Final Rating: 5/5
Can This Wolf Survive? By Rafael Zepeda is a collection of poems that center around Los Angeles and the experiences of aging. The collection had a strong sense of place, and the relationships described have depth. Though, this collection felt out of place and deeply aged for being published only a few years ago.
Zepeda, having more experience as a fiction writer, seems to have written the poems with the same approach as he would fiction. In effect, the poems read with a dull linearity, where few risks are taken with line breaks/stanza distinction (lines are of only one sentence, stanzas feel isolated), dialogue, or the abstract. In truth, this had made me question if poetry was the right form for the stories and moments Zepeda wanted to tell.
I also began to question the intent and integrity of some of the poems such as When I Heard Burkowski Die, Rashomon Revisited, and A Descent into Baja. The first of which seems to have only been written to create a connection between Zepeda and Burkowski without much consideration into the craft of the piece. Like many of the other poems, its effect seems self-indulgent and only there to try and make Zepeda’s name associated with famous writers.
In Rashomon Revisited, it was unclear what the motivation of the poem was about. To me, it seemed like it was trying to feel superior to the subject, a woman questioning him about his support of the LGBTQ community, where he would be able to get the final word in. It gave me an uncomfortable feeling, and only confirmed my thoughts after reading A Descent into Baja. This poem is initial unassuming, where Zepeda describes the places he visits in Mexico, but what really irked me was his use of the outdated and distasteful term transvestite. The poem would’ve been decent enough had he not used the word, but confirmed my thoughts on his true feelings, initially raised in Rashomon Revisited.
This collection is a disappointing foray into an older man’s antiqued thoughts. And even more disappointing is Jim Harrison’s praise of Zepeda on the back cover.
Final Rating: 2/5
How High We Go in the Dark by Sequoia Nagamatsu is a novel which spans lifetimes, weaving in elements of science fiction, history, and grief. It’s a collection of short stories which exist in the same timeline and have interconnected characters. It begins with the discovery of a child in ice whose body contained a virus that morphs organs into other types of tissue. From this basis, Nagamatsu zooms in on specific characters, shows their loss, displays their grief, and works to create a depth to his world.
I was particularly fond of the chapter City of Laughter, in which a young boy is dying from the disease and is taken to a roller coaster park, to first be a patient in a drug trial, and then be sent on the final roller coaster meant to kill. It’s a deeply powerful story of love and loss between a worker at the park, the boy, and his mother. And throughout reading the chapter, there are varying degrees of happiness and sadness. And the story balances its bittersweet end perfectly.
I also liked the way it was critical of how capitalism works to use death as ways of profit in Elegy Hotel, in which a hotel chain stages the bodies of the recently deceased in hotel rooms for their loved ones to say their final goodbyes. Some of the stories, such as Through the Garden of Memory and Pig Son have otherworldly concepts, but Nagamatsu works so elegantly in crafting them, that they don’t feel out of place. It is a beautifully apt novel for the current moment, but also heartbreakingly powerful in how it sits with death, grief, hope, and survival.
Final Rating: 4.5/5
The Kenyon Review May/June 2022 is a collection of prose and poetry that looks at life after the pandemic and in relation to nature. This issue had some intricate stories, namely, ‘The Arm of the Lord’, by David Crouse, and ‘Burning’, by Uche Okonkwo. Some of the poetry that captured me was, ‘Escape & Energy’, by Brenda Hillman, and ‘Mercy Me’, by Corrie Williamson.
Though the story that I felt was the strongest was ‘Happy Is a Doing Word’, by Arinze Ifeakandu which follows two boys who are learning about themselves and their queerness in relation to the rest of their community. I loved the way the voice of the story bleeds through the pages, and how the anger, frustration, sadness, and joy play out as the boys are outed to their parents and friends. It is a captivating story that worked to give dimension to queer experience.
Final Rating: 4/5
Telling the Bees by Faith Shearin is a collection of poems that processes and recounts the relationships she has with her dog, her daughter, her parents, and with herself. While there were moments of intrigue, especially in the poems ‘Scurvy’, ‘Telling the Bees’, ‘Floods and Fires’, and ‘Dust’, the rest of the collection felt like it lacked depth. This can be seen in poems such as ‘Rewind’ which was about watching movies in rewind and wanting to be younger. Though, the poem didn’t go any further than that, and I would’ve liked to see a specific moment which was rewound or dug deeper as to why she wanted to be younger. I was also a little apprehensive about the poems ‘Lizzie Borden’ and ‘Typhoid Mary’ which both seemed to lay out what each person did wrong, but ultimately created an empathetic image in the end. This unsettled me, which may have been what Shearin was going for, but both seemed to be outliers in their sentiments in the collection. Overall, the collection didn’t feel specific/granular enough.
Final Rating: 2.5/5
Maxwell Suzuki is a writer, poet, and photographer based in Los Angeles.