This week we’re taking a closer look at Powell’s Pick of the Month Time is a Mother by Ocean Vuong.
I’d like to start Poetry Month off with a confession: although I read a lot of poetry, I don’t write about it very often. I’m an untrained reader, and the question I’m always asking when I sit down with a collection is: “do I connect with this?”
If the answer is no, it is almost certainly my own failure. Contemporary poetry is all so delightfully idiosyncratic; my sense is that poets of past eras were often trying to write the perfect sonnet
, while most poets today are trying to write their perfect sonnet. If I’m not vibing with a poem, it’s no one’s fault (unless it’s mine for not being expansive enough, which it probably is).
If the answer is yes, and I do connect with a poet’s work, I still find it hard to write about. My medium of choice is the 50–100-word blurb, but my internal thesaurus has only generated a half dozen ways of saying “this is good” (and online thesauri aren’t much help). So, I do my best to identify the way in which a book succeeds at its objective and center my blurb around that, add a few adverbs (ironically, I use “skillfully” a lot), and I’m done.
However, my poetry-reader-imposter-syndrome is such that I’m never sure I’ve properly identified the poet’s central objective (and sometimes they seem to have more than one, which is really unfair). This leaves me with “I responded to this collection,” and I can’t even get to a half dozen variations on that, and so I often write nothing about the poetry I love. (I pause here to apologize to all the poetry publishers out there. You deserve better!)
So here is my attempt to break this pattern, and give a full and honest reaction to Ocean Vuong’s much-anticipated new collection Time is a Mother
: I really responded to it!
Where is the line between pain and personhood? And how do we balance our regard for each, in a way that respects both, but doesn’t conflate them?
I have more. I think one of the central questions that Vuong explores is: where is the line between pain and personhood? And how do we balance our regard for each, in a way that respects both, but doesn’t conflate them? Perhaps my favorite line in the book is: “I can say it was gorgeous now, my harm, because it belonged to no one else.”
Much of the book is responding to the poet’s grief over the death of his mother, and the most indelible poem in the collection is a quotidian accounting of one aspect of her life. There are other traumas recounted as well, but throughout, Vuong’s exuberant, infectious love of language offers a counterpoint to the pain. Vuong has known much anguish and his attitude when revisiting it in his art is a mix of sorrow, empathy, and mischievousness that I admire and relate to.
I’m left with a deep regard for how Ocean Vuong can both process pain and playfully assemble words; to do either well is laudable, and to do them simultaneously is a kind of miracle.