Once in a while, a book is poetry in its purest form, meaning it doesn’t need the stanza, or the verse, a simple break of the line will do. It may be: “there. Like something prayed for,” or, “in the branches. He watched me with kerosene,” or even, “Which meant I was a murderer.”
Those lines are from “Bull,” the opening poem of Time Is a Mother, Ocean Vuong’s new book of verse (Penguin Press, 2022), reminiscent of his fantastic first novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. In the almost surgical superiority with which it does the jobs of insight, emotion, of surprise and beauty, it returns to some of the themes explored by Vuong in earlier work: the construction of masculinity, the role of mothers on their children’s psyche and self-image, the influence of pop culture, its helping role in violence, and, of course, our society’s enduring tension around gender definitions and sexual orientation.
Here’s some of “The Last Prom Queen in Antarctica”:
It’s true I’m all talk & a French tuck
but so what. Like the wind, I ride
my own life. Neon light electric
in the wet part of roadkill
on the street where I cut my teeth
on the good sin. I want to
take care of our planet
because I need a beautiful
graveyard. It’s true I’m not a writer
but a faucet underwater. When the
I’ll raise my hand so they know
who to shoot. The sky flashes. The sea
yearns. I myself
am hell. Everyone’s here. Sometimes…
Of course, you see it. You hear it. A whole new syntax arranged around the senses, abstract and concrete intermingling, like our minds, when searching for a line to hang on to.
There is also more of an urgency in Time Is a Mother. The themes mentioned earlier, here flow with less restraint, maybe, now liberated from plot, they aim to prioritize the music, to dance wildly, but not carelessly, Vuong’s word swords still strategic, each charge not an attack, but a defense, as in the powerful poem, “Old Glory”:
Knock them dead, big guy. Go in there
guns blazing, buddy. You crushed
at the show. No, it was a blowout. No,
a massacre. Total overkill. We tore
them a new one. My son’s a beast. A lady
-killer. Straight shooter, he knocked
her up. A bombshell blonde. You’ll blow
them away. Let’s bag the broad. Let’s spit
the faggot. Let’s fuck his brains out.
That girl is a grenade. It was like Nam
down there. I’d still slam it though. I’d
good. I’m cracking up. It’s hilarious. You
murdered. You had me dying over here.
Bro, for real though, I’m dead.
And so, the language of toxic masculinity gets turned against its users, along with a certain dread, a fear of losing or dying coming up as the constant in the subtext of this very short, but intensely charged, volume full of forward motions.
Like the first few lines of “Nothing”: We are shoveling, this man and I, our backs coming
closer a long drive. It’s so quiet every flake on my coat
has a life. I used to cry in a genre no one read. What a joke,
they said, on fire. There’s no money in it, son, they shouted,
smoke from their mouths. But ghost say funny things
when they’re family…,
“I’m starting to root for him, on his way to dust.” (from “Künstlerroman.”) Or, “you must bear the scent of corpses”(from “Dear Rose.”)
In the end, Time Is a Mother is a true magic trick. The message made into shapes sharp with meaning, but the weapon—clearly—is always the line.
Novelist, short fiction, and nonfiction author Anjanette Delgado’s poetry has appeared in several literary journals including The Hong Kong Review. Her review of Time Is a Mother was originally published in New York Journal of Books (www.nyjournalofbooks.com/book-review/time-mother).