The poetry book “Time is a Mother” by Ocean Vuong. A review – culture

Strong Sensitivity has a downside: it ages poorly. This also applies to art and, alongside the great previous success of Ocean Vuong, is a second reason why his new volume of poetry “Time is a Mother” is burdened with a not inconsiderable burden. In his best-selling autobiographical novel “On Earth We Are Briefly Grand” and the volume of poetry published in the USA shortly before and in Germany a short time later “Night Sky with Exit Wounds” Vuong had elevated the permeability of strong affects to the dominant stylistic principle. The novel was also raised in the most sensitive of all genres: as a letter to one’s own mother, who, however, cannot read and thus remains an eternally unreachable recipient.

Now after three years in which Vuong has not published a new book, the question arises how to proceed with a literature that operates with such high-speed emotional moments. Shouldn’t poems that focus entirely on a mother in the book title not be emotionally overwhelming, especially given the sad fact that the poet’s died of breast cancer at the age of less than sixty?

On the positive side: by no means all, not even the majority of the texts attempt to answer the dazzlingly hermetic title sentence that defines time as a mother. Most of the poems, whether they are ten pages long or only half a page, cannot be reduced to a thematic denominator, ranging from shoveling snow in the freezing cold to television pictures of the war, from sterile hospital beds to skinny dipping under the guillotine sky, from snippets of quotations to fragments of memories, from meeting someone at midnight silent bull to say goodbye to a drug-related death.

Poems between classic modern, everyday notes and poetry slam

That seems pleasantly vague, after all a book of poetry is not a novel, but rather a disused quarry that changes the view of and movement through the landscape, or a small box of pins that you tuck into half-blindly. In “Time is a Mother” between a lot of gravel and rubble, you can always find rare earths and one or the other rough diamond or smile about the succinct claim that the writer in the poem “The Last Queen of the Antarctica” is not a writer, but an underwater tap. One pricks one’s fingers at sharply pointed language images, is pleasantly irritated at “fresh, perplexed bones”, at eyes like “raindrops in a nightmare” and at the sight of two lovers as “panting trout”. One breathes a sigh of delight when the poet at the heart of “American Legend” finally finds a payphone to call his way out of an unwanted jaunt with his father, who is always drunk.

Even more than in the earlier work, Vuong’s lyrical snapshots express the intention of directing a surrealistically impregnated view of the very smallest of things, of the few and fleeting things that can just about be caught “between thumb and forefinger”. However, the poems in this volume do not always succeed in arranging their lyrical fragments into a compellingly poetic form. A lot just breaks off at some point, ends with the same tension as others begin, ripples on monotonously after a colon that feigns a caesura.

Color adjectives sit in the spaces like filler words, patching up midnight green, cheerful yellow and blood blue, which could have remained a harsh and irritating coincidence. A poem about a nail salon employee’s Amazon order list seems a bit despondently late avant-garde in the list of highly toxic-sounding work materials and colorful plastic leisure knick-knacks. The metapoetically exhibited language tools also mesh all too smoothly, where a syllable quickly becomes a bullet, a word becomes an insect, a vaguely remembered body part is broken down into an incomplete sentence. For long stretches, the impression prevails that the poems stick their heads in the sand somewhere halfway between classic modernism, everyday memoirs and poetry slams.

Ocean Vuong: Time is a mother. Translated from the English by Anne-Kristin Mittag. Hanser, Munich 2022. 112 pages, 20 euros.

But then the fascinating piece of “artist novel” emerges from the haze. At the end of a “seemingly endless wandering” the protagonist of this longer proa poem finds a cassette, presses the rewind button and witnesses a flood of images that tell formative scenes from the life of a man who could be himself: signatures disappear from the books of an acclaimed writer before being washed backwards out of the limelight into lonely streets. Two lovers are first naked, then dressed again: “Their clothes come back to them like fallen laws.” Images of war from the Middle East are shown on television – it must be the first Gulf War, because the tanks are rolling backwards out of Iraq for the second time.

This arrangement also has to defend itself against the suspicion of kitsch, but can argue in its defense that the rewound life is not consistently linear, but jumps unreliably: A fired bullet does not return to the barrel, a friend named Kelvin dies and remains dead, he “does not sit up in his coffin to kiss his father, Mr. Rios, on the forehead”. From this it can be concluded: In the poem, life is told as an artist rather than as a Bildungsroman, time is not accumulated biographically, but burned and destroyed picture by picture. The best poem in the volume ends with the words “here at the end”, closing the circle again in the here and thus in the tense from which the other poems in the volume too seldom break out, although their content is constantly buried in reminiscences.

In Friedrich Schiller’s theory, poetry is called naive if it unfolds in harmony with its subject based on an antique model, while elegy, idyll and satire are sentimental, i.e. poetic forms that attempt to overcome the distance to their subject without any prospect of success. Ocean Vuong’s new poems read like fragments of sentimental forms in a naive guise: most of it is elegy, with occasional flashes of a fleeting, improbable idyll. There is hardly any room for satire, because even that, a tendency towards a lack of humor, conceals a sensibility that is nowhere near as fresh and perplexed as in Vuong’s first two books. It would have been desirable for these poems to have felt called to be the mother of all time more often than in the “Artist’s Romance” or, as in the dramatically condensed opening poem “The Stier”, to have made an effort to have it abolished. What remains is the clouded impression of a presence sunk in reminiscences, which pulls the teeth out of the rest of the time.

source site