Seductions of Metaphor: On Ocean Vuong's Time Is a Mother
By Matthew Scully
July 28, 2023
Time Is a Mother
Penguin Books (2022)
128 pp. $17.00 (paperback)
Ocean Vuong’s highly anticipated collection of poetry, Time Is a Mother (2022), intensifies many of the themes from his previous works, Night Sky With Exit Wounds (2016) and On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous (2019), including topics of queerness, immigration and forced migration, masculinity, desire, and memory. Readers of Vuong’s work will note a certain freedom in the poems of this latest effort that perhaps marks Vuong’s now well-established poetic voice. As Vuong has noted in an interview with The Adroit Journal, he “compromised nothing” in this collection, which he considers to be “the artist’s statement realized, made felt. It’s the enactment of a dream. That’s why I think I’m proud of this work in a way I haven’t felt about my previous books.”
If Time Is a Mother can be read as an achieved artist’s statement, it is also a collection motivated by the death of Vuong’s mother, Lê Kim Hồng. There is, then, a sense of mourning and elegy that frames these lyric articulations of grief, a sense figured in the collection’s second poem, “Snow Theory”:
In the snow, the dry outline of my mother
Promise me you won’t vanish again, I said
She lay there awhile, thinking it over
One by one the houses turned off their lights
I lay down over her outline, to keep her true
Together we made an angel
It looked like something being destroyed in a blizzard
I haven’t killed a thing since
The overlapping of outlines—itself a metaphor of writing, inscription, and language—beautifully figures the intimacy and transitory nature of the experiences motivating the collection as a whole.
Vuong employs a number of striking forms and figures throughout the collection that keep returning, in different ways, to this motivating “outline.” In “Amazon History of a Former Nail Salon Worker,” the structure of the Amazon shopping history enables Vuong to narrate the end of his mother’s life in a mode that shifts from the quotidian—“Mar. / Advil (ibuprofen), 4 pack”—to the affective—“Chemo-Glam cotton scarf, flower garden print.” The poem generates a surprising intimacy through this history of consumption. There’s also “Künstlerroman,” which tells the story of the artist with a twist: Organized by the trope of the speaker rewinding a videotape, we get the narrative told in reverse. And in “Dear Rose,” one of several poems addressed to an absent auditor, the speaker notes that his mother’s name translates to “rose,” leading to a complex discussion of floral metaphors, existence, language, reading, and writing.
As these brief citations suggest, a central poetic concern of the collection is the seductive possibility and power of metaphor. The title of Vuong’s collection, Time Is a Mother, already announces this interest in metaphor, but it also appears striking for a certain unwieldiness. Is this a bad metaphor, a cliché? Is it something that produces a simultaneous sense of obviousness and opacity? What is the reader to make of the metaphoric conjunction of time and the figure of the mother? Traditionally, according to Barbara Johnson, metaphor names a substitution “based on resemblance or analogy.” If this is the case, then what is the resemblance between “time” and “mother” that justifies the metaphoric conjunction?
Among the many critical approaches to metaphor, Kenneth Burke’s discussion in A Grammar of Motives (1945) offers a helpful frame for Vuong’s project. For Burke, metaphor has to do with perspective: “A poem, by shifting the imagery of its metaphors, permits us to contemplate the subject from the standpoint of various objects. This effect is dialectical in the sense that we see something in terms of some other.” Metaphor, in other words, can generate surprising conjunctions that enable readers to break their familiar, habituated viewpoints. The at once simple and opaque title, Time Is a Mother, asks us to read time through the figure of the mother and vice versa.
The title stems from a line in one of the collection’s most forceful poems, “Not Even.” Before turning to that poem and attempting to unpack the collection’s governing metaphor, however, it is helpful to begin with a series of poetic expressions in the collection that read as self-conscious articulations about the poetry we are reading. Vuong’s poetry has been noted for its figurative density, and in “Beautiful Short Loser,” the speaker draws attention to the possibility of his own, perhaps excessive, figurative language: “Is the memory of a song the shadow of a sound or is that too much?” The metaphoric rereading, in which “memory” becomes figured as a “shadow,” also depends on an effect of synesthesia: The auditory becomes figured by the visual. This mixing of sensations, or sensing of sense by another sense, itself speaks to a certain kind of excess that develops out of metaphoric accumulation generated through a metonymic series of figurations. Vuong’s tendency to pile on metaphoric resonances is reminiscent of Sylvia Plath’s poetic strategy, especially in a poem such as “Tulips.”
Yet if metaphor is about conjunction, it also depends on severance. The speaker suggests precisely this dynamic toward the middle of “Beautiful Short Loser” when he says, “Nobody’s free without breaking open.” Metaphor, then, is a form of cleaving: It splits and joins such that we recognize the fundamental dependence of and difference between the two sides of the metaphor. This act of cleaving itself resembles the cinematic splice constitutive of analog film in “Künstlerroman.” The film splice brings together two frames even as it depends on the gap between them. In “Beautiful Short Loser,” this act of division and conjunction, of fragmenting and making whole, comes to organize the poetic representation of Jaxson, the speaker’s friend who just underwent top surgery. Later, the speaker is “mopping the floor / where Jaxson’s drain bags leaked on his way to bed,” which prompts the speaker to reflect that “taking a piece of my friend away from him / made him more whole.”
The densest poetic articulations of identity and subjectivity might appear in “Not Even.” The poetic speaker announces, “I used to be a fag now I’m a checkbox. // The pen tip jabbed in my back, I feel the mark of progress.” The irony of this “progress” intensifies later in a narrated encounter with a woman in Brooklyn:
Once, at a party set on a rooftop in Brooklyn for an “artsy vibe,” a young
woman said, sipping her drink, You’re so lucky. You’re gay plus you get to
write about war and stuff. I’m just white. [Pause] I got nothing. [Laughter,
But everyone knows yellow pain, pressed into American letters, turns to gold.
Our sorrow Midas touched. Napalm with a rainbow afterglow.
Unlike feelings, blood gets realer when you feel it.
I’m trying to be real but it costs too much.
Vuong dramatizes the injunction that the minoritized writer commodify and capitalize on their experiences understood as a form suffering and, often, victimization—or make their experiences conform to such expectations. In Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning, Cathy Park Hong comments on this conformity when she notes that Vuong’s initial readers ignored his queerness because it did not align with their expectations of a Vietnamese immigrant story. Vuong ironically critiques these expectations, as well as the way they are flippantly valued, in “Not Even.” He then proceeds, however, to perform the very kind of narrative expected of him as a queer Vietnamese American when he draws on napalm as a figure. Yet this in turn places the speaker in an untenable dynamic. For he plays into various expectations of so-called authenticity, but he does so to insist on a certain reality effect that depends on its literary mediation and artifice. For this reason, Viet Thanh Nguyen characterizes Vuong’s poetic persona, rather than the poetry itself, as autobiographical in an interview for the Los Angeles Review of Books, and Rigoberto González describes Vuong’s manipulation of autobiographical details in terms of a poetic mythology. While numerous readers, including Donnelle McGee in the Los Angeles Review of Books, rightly locate a certain rawness and vulnerability in Vuong’s lines, such senses are carefully constructed effects of his poetics. Our sense of immediacy appears, in other words, as a belated aftereffect of the poetic mediation.
Like “Self-Portrait as Exit Wounds” and “Notebook Fragments” in Night Sky, “Not Even” meditates on a series of striking images of identity and/as loss. The speaker asks, for example, “What if it wasn’t the crash that made us, but the debris?” Here we also encounter the collection’s title and governing metaphor: “Time is a mother.” Yet the poem then offers a revision of this phrase and metaphor in an expression of grief and rage, such that it comes to read, “Time is a motherfucker, I said to the gravestones, alive, absurd.” The poem’s conclusion offers a way of reading these two phrases, as the speaker reflects, “and I was lifted, wet and bloody, out of my mother, into the world, screaming // and enough.” Vuong’s speaker has been constituted by and through his mother as a temporal being, a subject of and to history, memory, and experience. Yet time, as the very thing that constitutes his being, also shatters it through its ongoing production of debris and collateral damage. The poem registers the speaker’s (and Vuong’s) grief, and it also attempts to work through such grief in a series of registers. His mother has been lost and yet lives on in this poetic translation, an outline of an outline that both recedes and returns in the time of poetic enunciation and expression.
MATTHEW SCULLY is Lecturer in American Literature and Culture at the University of Lausanne. His first book, Democratic Anarchy: Figures of Equality in United States Literature and Politics (Fordham UP, 2024), engages with American literature from the nineteenth century to the present to consider the anxious intersections of politics and aesthetics, locating literature’s democratic force in figurative operations that resist and disrupt forms of inequality. His work has appeared in the Journal of Modern Literature, Diacritics, African American Review, American Literature, Critical Inquiry, and Postmodern Culture.