Wednesday, May 25, 2022

Time Is A Mother By Ocean Vuong


Time Is A Mother

By Ocean Vuong

Penguin Press

New York, NY

ISBN: 978-0-593-30023-7

114 Pages


Review by Dennis Daly

Decadent. Robotic. Thinly constructed with self-indulgent metaphors. No, I do not like Ocean Vuong’s new collection of poems, Time Is A Mother. In fairness, I am biased and motivated because of a breathless, over-the-top review of Vuong’s first book, Night Sky with Exit Wounds, published in the New Yorker in 2016. That hyperbolizing reviewer claimed that Vuong would somehow “fix” the English language. Nonsense.

However, Vuong, an American poet, born in Vietnam in 1988, did, as the inside flap of his new hardcover book reminds us, win the 2016 Whiting Award, the 2017 T. S. Eliot Prize, and a 2019 MacArthur Genius Grant.

Indeed, Vuong’s first book, as I remember it, seemed well-written and somewhat interesting as a first book, but not exceptional. This second collection, a meditation on his mother’s death—always a dicey subject for a poet, does not impress. Vuong’s technique reminds one of the infamous “poet voice” used to read aloud or, more to the point, the affected preciousness inherent in much of this poet’s written language. Until the last poem in the collection, nothing on Vuong’s pages offers even a modicum of originality. His images are often lifeless. His airy lyrics interrupted by verbal flatness.

Snow Theory, the first poem in Vuong’s collection, is probably his best. Each line begins with a capital letter and, although there are no periods, contributes a complete thought to the whole. After a bewildering montage of introductory lines, the poet launches into a riveting description of a snow angel he makes over his mother’s frozen outline that he has conjured up. His connection to her memory begets endearment, which, in turn, is blasted by blizzard-weather. Consider these lead-in lines,

This is the best day ever

I haven’t killed a thing since 2006

The darkness out there, wet as a newborn

I dog-eared the book & immediately

Thought of masturbation

How else do we return to ourselves but to fold

The page so it points to the good part

Another country burning on TV

What we’ll always have is something we lost

The non sequiturs aside, the fifth line, “Thought of masturbation,” doesn’t work, not because of sense (its 2022 and the term has lost all shock value and seems somewhat lame), but rather its flat Latinate tone. Line nine, “What we’ll always have is something we lost,” kicks in only cliché and slickness.

Vuong’s piece, Dear Peter, drops into the pedestrian depths of silliness. The victim/protagonist shows off his crazy credentials (a la Plath, Sexton, and Lowell) in words that are light and lifeless. It’s okay to write down your thoughts while confined and institutionalized, but, for God’s sake, make it new. And don’t position your bed a sea—especially given your first name, the irony smacks of puerile idiocy,

the xanax

dissolves & I’m

okay this bed

no longer stranded

at sea the door

coming closer

now & I’m gonna

dock some days

I make it to

the reading room

they have one flew over

the cuckoo’s nest can you

believe it but hey

I think I’m getting better

Trying to be clever in poetry never works. Vuong’s poem Old Glory is too artsy by half. His use of slang expressions, continuing clichés containing violent and obscene metaphors, doesn’t do much except engender dissatisfaction at old, tired phraseology and low-level disgust. The poet tries to lead his reader through brutishness into an illuminating last line that seems pointless and insignificant and, in any case, does not hold enough weight, given the piece’s preceding images. Here is the heartless center of the poem,

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-roast

the faggot. Let’s fuck his brains out.

That girl’s a grenade…

Vuong’s most telling work in the collection he sets as the last poem. It is an elegy, made up of thirty-three eight-line stanzas, addressed to his mother entitled Dear Rose. Vuong’s mother’s Vietnamese name, Hong, means rose or pink. She died in 2019 from cancer. The poem almost succeeds but seems embedded with hesitancy. Its subject revolves around his mother’s alienated life and his search for understanding in it. The back story certainly works, but not the two images that it is based upon: zigzagging ants and fish sauce. Here are two sets of those crucial lines,


there between thumb & forefinger

an ant racing in circles then zigzags

I wanted significance but think

it was just the load he was bearing

that unhinged him: another ant

curled & cold lifted on

his shoulders they looked like a set

of quotations missing speech…


you dumped

A garbage bag of anchovies into the glass jar

the day was harmless a breeze hovering

in amber light above us gray

New England branches swayed without

touching to make fish sauce you said

you must bear the scent of corpses

salted & crushed a year in a jar …

The above images seem a bit thin, given the insinuations of hatred, violence, and racism that follows. Because of her American father, Rose identifies herself as her people’s “white enemy.”

That Ocean Vuong came from a difficult background, no one doubts. Nor is he responsible for the over-the-top idolization of his (to some) compelling persona. But personality cults do not trump craft or musical inspiration. Vuong may be on his way to the heights of Parnassus, but he has not yet arrived. Time is, indeed, a mother.


  1. Anonymous9:06 AM

    This review offers criticism of the larger context in which poetic heroics operates - by that I mean, the claims for greatness that have been directed at Ocean Vuong in the past have generated what Dennis Daly identifies as weakness in this volume. It amounts to the curse of praise and adoration, where the writer believes they are unique, forgetting the humility that is required to write poetry that achieves its supreme goal: a contribution to insights into human existence.

    1. Anonymous1:46 PM

      Anonymous has an interesting and valid point.