Person waeing a dark blue shirt and earrings, sitting down

Ocean Vuong is a professor at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, working with poets and writers in the English department’s MFA program.

Time is a Mother book cover

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

flood comes

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

smash it

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 (