Ocean Vuong's rainbow afterglow: poet returns with 'Time Is a Mother'

  • by Tim Pfaff
  • Tuesday April 26, 2022
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Ocean Vuong
Ocean Vuong

One true way to envision Ocean Vuong is as, if not The Survivor, a survivor. He survived being plucked out of Saigon at the age of two and hauled, in stages, to the US. Here he survived illiteracy and dyslexia to learn English more deeply than most native speakers.

Then he survived coming out in unswishy environments. He survived drugs and alcohol. He survived poverty of a kind you almost have to be Asian to know, and he gives evidence now of surviving a pint-sized prosperity. As, if not most, miraculously, he has survived fame at its most relentlessly American.

A waiting, hungry audience asked him say whence he'd come, who he was, and who made him. Generations of eager admirers, most who knew Vietnam as a movie rather than the grind of news-hour TV, asked him to forgive them yet one more time for the American War. He responded with a book of poems, Night Sky with Exit Wounds, and a novel partly in verse, On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous, Huckleberry Finn playing The Barbarian Reed Pipe.

When we called him a genius, he replied that he might not write more books, and that that would be okay. Not that it would have to be okay, but that it would be okay with him. And he wore the new mantles we put on him but did not write again until his newly released second book of poems, "Time Is a Mother" (Penguin Press).

Its contents are not occasional poems, at least in the usual sense, but they were occasioned by the silence that enveloped him after the death of his mother, the nail salon worker who painstakingly saw to it that he would become someone she literally could not understand, whose public readings she could judge only by the looks on his listeners' faces. She liked that we liked him.

In the tidal wave of interviews he's given about the new poems, he has offered the only critical opinion that matters: that he does not regret the book. That in the others, and what he has written since, and in everything he can imagine ever writing, he would, given time and the opportunity, tirelessly revise. Just not this time, these poems.

In "Dear Sara," he addresses his cousin, to whom he loves reading and who has asked him, "What's the point of writing if you're just going to force a bunch of ants to cross a white desert?" He replies that "my hands are monsters who believe in magic," and then more about the ants "fossilized on the page," and then more song.

In "American Legend," he gives us a rare glimpse of his father, "driving with my old man." On a hairpin turn, "he slammed into me & we hugged for the first time in decades. It was perfect & wrong, like money on fire." Father counseled, "Put it down on the page, son," and Ocean "did what any boy would do after getting exactly what he wanted: I kissed my father."

In the poems he also speaks to his partner, Peter, often confessionally. Such as one could speak of a new confidence in Vuong's poetry, the emphasis would have to be on the 'confide-ent.'

There's bluntness about his psych ward days offset by what feel like present-day odes, such as "The Last Dinosaur," in which he puts in the mouth of an ancient redwood, "Oh human, I'm not mad at you for winning but that you never wished for more."

His words for the most intimate things are so right you don't blush. In "Dear T" he uses one of the longest poemscapes to show "maybe I can build a boy."

He has also said that what he likes about the new book is that in it he was able to write "in all registers." What that means for the musical-score-attendant listener is that phrases like "the aubade left to rot in the afternoon" gets to rub elbows, and print gutters, with "Hey. I used to be a fag now I'm a checkbox." ("Not Even")

Now when the old rage resurfaces, it's as threnody as much as lament. Responding to a girl at an "artsy" Brooklyn party who says he's lucky because as a fag he can also write about war, he replies, "Because everyone knows yellow pain, pressed into American letters, turns to gold. Our sorrow Midas touched. Napalm with a rainbow afterglow."

There are long poems in this book that really hold up, the longest the last, addressed to his mother, Rose. "Let me begin again now that you're gone Ma, if you're reading this then you survived...."

Ocean Vuong could be called a survivor of his mother's death only by resorting to the desiccated language of the newspaper obituary. But as only mothers' deaths can, hers —his— has set him free, at least free enough to write a body of verse that might be called, maybe even by him, settled. Not that, here, the poet has even for a minute settled.

Ocean Vuong, "Time Is a Mother," $25, 108 pages, Penguin Press.

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