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
Night Sky with Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong is a collection of poetry detailing the life of a gay Vietnamese immigrant. In it, he grapples with encounters he’s had with other men and what they mean, the origin of him and his family, and works all those moments into understanding religion and the self. Not only is Vuong highly skilled at creating a satisfying and beautiful narrative arc, but he is also tidy and imaginative with his mastery of prose. In ‘Because It’s Summer’ Vuong writes, “you want/to tell him it’s okay that the night is also a grave/we climb out of but he’s already fixing his collar the cornfield a cruelty steaming/with manure you smear your neck with”. His words are so exact in this collection, and the imagery refracts back on itself in new and imaginative ways. I was also astounded when reading ‘Aubade with Burning City’ where Vuong so powerfully juxtaposes the song of ‘White Christmas’ that played to signify the evacuation of Vietnam with the stark chaos and pain and sadness the Americans caused. It ends so heavily with the words, “In the square below: a nun, on fire,/runs silently toward her god—/Open, he says./She opens.” Other amazing highlights include ‘Untitled (Blue, Green, and Brown): oil on canvas: Mark Rothko: 1952’, ‘Notebook Fragments’, and ‘Prayer for the Newly Damned’. This collection is deftly honest, powerful, raw, and above all, beautiful.
Final Rating: 5/5
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong is structured as a letter from a Vietnamese American son to his mother about their relationship and his understanding of his sexuality. And through this letter, the speaker, Little Dog, grapples with what it means to be Asian and how families seemingly pass on their trauma onto their children. Though, Vuong allows for the story to burst from its spine, in that it goes far beyond its written word.
Vuong began as a poet, and his use of prose seem so natural and poignant that it only amplifies the novel’s meaning. There are, in fact, chapters that both read and are formed as poems. He is able to twist vast metaphors and weave in beautifully intricate images that the moments feel vivid and real. There are moments that are revisited and remixed into a kaleidoscope of urgent moments that made me nearly cry while reading at a laundromat. The earnestness of Little Dog forces the reader to feel like you are the mother meant to read the letter, which intrinsically creates an ‘in’ for the reader.
Not only does Vuong create such vivid images, he is also able to anchor the narrative in real world events and moments. This is the case in his use of Tiger Woods, the buffalo in nature documentaries, and the opioid crisis.
I am sure in only reading the novel once, I have missed out on layers of nuanced meaning. One thing that I had nearly missed was that Little Dog, when he talked about his mother abusing him, he switched to a third-person point of view. Things like that show both Little Dog wanted to separate himself from the story, and also protect his mother from fully comprehending what she did to her son.
There are so many things to say about On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, but I think that would pale in comparison to the novel itself. If there is only ever one book you need to read, then I believe this is the one.
Final Rating: 5/5
Maxwell Suzuki is a writer, poet, and photographer based in Los Angeles.