New England, the setting of Ocean Vuong’s acclaimed debut novel, “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous,” also helped inspire his second poetry collection, “Time Is a Mother.” Growing up in Hartford, Connecticut, as a refugee from Vietnam, Vuong heard New Englanders use phrases like “This blizzard is a mother.” In Vietnamese, people employ a similarly truncated form of the same expletive, and the fact that two cultures arrived separately at the same shorthand suggested to Vuong an endemic power. Spanning poems that take on both collective and personal loss, the title “Time Is a Mother” employs a profanity to diminish motherhood while simultaneously placing it at the center: Time is what gives birth to everything.
“As a poet,” Vuong explains, “when I hear a double entendre, I bite.”
Many of the poems in this collection, which, like Vuong’s earlier books, contend with memory, generational trauma, and what it means to be a refugee in the U.S. as a result of American violence abroad, were first drafted when his mother was alive.
“It’s like dropping a dye into water,” he says of how grief influenced the revision process. “The poems are not all directly about her, but they’re colored by her death. I had to update the book because I’m a completely different person: I crossed a gate and am now living in the country of grief.
“To be American is to grieve,” he notes, citing the bloodshed and injustice that have shaped the country, and the losses that characterize our pandemic era. Yet death and loss in Vuong’s poems often signify beginnings as much as ends. In his poem “American Legend,” a father, who with his son is taking the family dog to be put down at the vet’s, crashes their Ford as an act, in part, of liberation — from the automobile, that iconic symbol of American freedom and progress; from the nuclear family; and from the act of murdering an animal.
“The immigrant’s most powerful tool,” Vuong says, “is skepticism about what is received as heritage. As artists who are also outsiders, we can objectively refuse something we’re offered for something else, something better.”
Ocean Vuong will be in conversation with Rani Neutill at First Parish Church in Cambridge on Monday, June 12th, at 6 p.m.
Shubha Sunder lives in Boston and is the author of the short story collection, “Boomtown Girl.”