Ocean Vuong’s poetry collection Time is a Mother is demanding. However, what it demands is different from his masterful debut Night Sky with Exit Wounds, a collection that introduces us to the world of the writer. In verve that shines through careful, cutting language, Vuong’s poems in his debut collection are set against his personal history as a Vietnam-born American—regardless of the extent to which he acknowledges war and heritage in each poem, he depicts his experiences with his family and sexuality as being intimately related to them. The clear charm of Night with Exit Wounds is lost in Time is a Mother, which requires an antecedent investment in Vuong’s life in order to navigate the collection’s chaotic bricolage. Reading the poems, I felt a sudden guilt at failing to follow the poems’ content, as if I were a friend of his who had forgotten the details of his life that he had shared to me at lunch one afternoon.
This reaction isn’t entirely surprising. At the time of writing, dozens of comments litter the book’s Goodreads page, even though the book has yet to be released to the public. One reviewer wrote that “ocean vuong has single handedly saved 2022 and it hasn’t even started yet.” Another exclaimed “ocean vuong do you not care for my mental health,” while the collection is still listed as to-read on their profile. Another reviewer looking forward to the collection’s release said that “if ocean vuong wrote it, i will read it, no questions asked.”
This idolatry of Ocean Vuong is not unique, but is instead a distinct phenomenon that has emerged around Asian American artists today. Vuong contributes to the tradition also shared by Mitski and Japanese Breakfast, of a radical intimacy and self-disclosure in his art that fuels the cult of the artist. The emerging expectation that Asian American art should be both mentally healing as well as mentally destructive comes in tandem with the notion that art should be centered around self-disclosure.
That Asian American artists must offer an emotional service to the public is unique to their community: while it is true that all art has become more individualized in the 21st century, the demand placed on Asian American artists to soothe emotional turmoil aligns with their historical role in the economy, which has largely revolved around service jobs such as laundry, therapeutic, and nail salon work. The stereotype of Asian hospitality has fueled the implicit belief that Asian American art should require the artist to sacrifice a part of herself for the emotional catharsis of the consumer.
While Night Sky with Exit Wounds is just as intimate as Time is a Mother, the latter is much rougher around the edges, with an added vulgarity that at turns seems sincere and ironic. In his stream-of-consciousness poem “Dear Peter,” Vuong writes: “fuck he said / oh fuck you’re so much / like my little brother” and mentions a “…clinic window / where a girl / on methadone / claps alone / at a beige butterfly.” This is not to say that these topics are vulgar, but that they are almost puerile in their attempt to create a mature picture of adult life. Details such as these seem accessorial to the message of the poem, an act of self-conscious assertion that Vuong both knows and is capable of using profanity and profane images.
However, the type of language Vuong uses regularly in the collection is, whether intentionally or not, satirized by my favorite poem in the collection, “Old Glory.” In the poem, Vuong derides the famous sprezzatura of soldier lingo, which normalizes a vernacular of violence and misogyny. The poem features a series of short, ostensibly unrelated sentences, such as “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.” The casualness of these hackneyed phrases illuminates our internalized societal notions of dangerous femininity and the permissibility of casual acts of violence. The poem ends with the lines: “You truly murdered. You had me dying. Bro, for real though, we’re dead.” The searing ending of the poem demonstrates that this normalization of violence is a defensive response to the real violence in our society.
However, Vuong’s casualness does not point to any deeper reality, as he may have intended; instead, it leads to a void. That people felt that the collection “went over [their] head” isn’t a product of their literary amateurity, but instead of the real gaps that this collection demands its readers to fill through a detailed knowledge of the events of the author’s life. I struggled to find any meaning in the poetic form that Vuong used, which seemed not so much effortless as sloppy—not just in language, but also in his inclusion of the personal events from his life, from his relationship to his parents to Vietnam. It is frustrating because Vuong has brought much a much more intentional writing style to bear in his past publications—that this style was abandoned for a feigned indifference that is in vogue in modern poetry is unfortunate.
Compared to many of the poetry collections published today, Time is A Mother is still quite exquisite and heartfelt. Besides “Old Glory,” I particularly enjoyed “Snow Theory” and “Last Dinosaur” for their lyricism.
However, its wild success before its official publication portends a disturbing future in my eyes, in which a cult of the poet will result in the death of a poetic tradition which values, instead of challenges, the charms of anonymity. In a society where poets reach more fame than the poems they write, and consumers are emboldened to demand an increasing amount of knowledge into the artist’s psyche, I worry that we will confuse profundity with vulnerability, and lose the ability to appreciate artistic mystique.