Time Is a Mother

Ocean Vuong. Penguin, $24 (128p) ISBN 978-0-593-30023-7

Vuong’s powerful follow-up to Night Sky with Exit Wounds does more than demonstrate poetic growth: it deepens and extends an overarching project with 27 new poems that reckon with loss and impermanence. Braiding past and present, Vuong’s speakers contextualize personal traumas within larger systems of dehumanization. Gold becomes a key visual motif for capitalist tendencies: “There is sunlight here, golden enough to take to the bank” and “Because everyone knows yellow pain, pressed into American letters, turns to gold.” His skillful technique is evident in elegies such as “Dear Rose,” which describes a mother’s life punctuated by poignant asides (“are you reading this dear/ reader are you my mom yet/ I cannot find her without you”). “Dear T” offers a meditation on the artistic process: “look—a bit of ink on the pad/ & we’re running down the street again/ after the thunderstorm/ platelets still plenty// in veins beneath your cheek.” Yet there’s a new, biting insouciance and self-awareness in Vuong’s voice, “Oh no. The sadness is intensifying. How rude,” turning his trademark epigrammatic flair to darkly humorous effect: “Because when a man & a man/ walk hand in hand into a bar/ the joke’s on us.” This fantastic book will reward fans while winning this distinctive poet new ones. (Apr.)
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