Ocean Vuong's new poems examine the 'big, big yesterday' since his mother was alive

Ocean Vuong's new poems examine the 'big, big yesterday' since his mother was alive

2:33pm Apr 04, 2022
Poet Ocean Vuong writes about loss and grief, but also discovery.
Poet Ocean Vuong writes about loss and grief, but also discovery.
Tom Hines

The poet Ocean Vuong says two years after he lost his mother to cancer, he was feeling "smug in [his] healing" — when the worst moment came.

"One day, I woke up in the middle of the night, two in the morning, and I thought, 'Oh, God, I've got to tell my mom this thing.' I had this brilliant idea and I get out of bed," he told NPR's Rachel Martin.

"I go all the way downstairs in the dark, like a madman. And I turn right into my living room, turn on the light, and I just gasp and I thought, 'Gosh, she's gone.' And I just sat down and sobbed and I wanted to run in every direction at once and just call for her."

He says he learned grief is not linear, and so he returned to the form that brought him the most pleasure: poetry.

"I wanted to face that blank page and fill it with an innovation that led me to the rest of my life," Vuong said.

He is the author of the award-winning poetry collection Night Sky with Exit Wounds and the bestselling novel On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous.

Vuong's highly anticipated second poetry collection Time Is a Mother is out on Tuesday. In it, he builds a space for rumination on time with poems written in the aftermath of his mother's death.

Despite writing so intimately about loss and grief, Vuong told Morning Edition his work is ultimately about discovery.

"Because there's so much worse things than sitting at a desk and remembering."

Listen to Vuong read the final poem from Time Is a Mother, "Woodworking at the End of the World."

An early version of this poem is in The Yale Review.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Interview highlights

On finding moments of joy through the grief

When it comes to watching your mother take her last breath, I thought, "Wait a minute, this is what so many children have experienced since the beginning of our species." And it made me realize when I was having a bad day or having a rough day at work, I looked at someone and I said, "Oh, they lost their mother." Or, if it's someone much younger, that they're going to lose their mother. And all of a sudden I'm just so close to them. I'm sad. That's the bridge. That's the bridge where we will meet each other eventually. It makes you kinder in a very fundamental way.

On the poem "Reasons for Staying"

[It's] a very simple list poem. I lost my uncle, who's also in this book. This book is full of ghosts. I lost [him] in 2012 to suicide. He had a long struggle with mental illness, which runs in our family. And I wrote this poem as a list, which is the simplest form of poetry, and I wanted to name the things that made me stay on this Earth, when one of the [things on the] list was just watching my mother put on blush in front of the mirror before heading to chemotherapy. And to me, that moment is such a thesis, I think, for the rest of my life. When you're trying to fight for your life, you're also fighting to preserve beauty. So you could still control how you look even as your body is falling apart. And there is something so human to that.

On the tension around time in the book

I think I wanted to name my book Time Is a Mother because I didn't think it was true that we should always gender it in the male form that we've traditionally had as a culture. Like, "Father Time stops for no one." To me, time is much more motherly because it gives birth to the present. Everything we do is made possible by the capacity of time to hold us. And when I lost my mother, I realized that my life has been lived in only two days. Today, when she's gone. And then the massive yesterday when she was with me. No matter how many weeks or months have come since I lost her, I can't count them. So when I look at my life since she died in 2019, I only see two days: Today when she's not here, and the big, big yesterday when I had her.

On turning loss into art

It's the name of the job. I think it's the job description. And a lot of folks ask me, "How can you be so vulnerable in your work? How can you look at difficult histories — personal and political and historical — and keep going? How do you take care of yourself?" And I said, "I signed up for this." I don't think it's a burden to to look at everything that is human, the joys and the difficulty. I'm not saying it's for everyone. I'm also not saying it's the hardest job in the world. This is the task at hand, to not turn away from the light and the dark, and that is the poet's job. And for me, looking at the past reminds us that the past is inexhaustible."

If you or someone you know may be considering suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

This story was edited for radio by Jeevika Verma, Jacob Conrad and Nell Clark and was adapted for the web by Jeevika Verma and Nell Clark.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The writer Ocean Vuong has this ability to describe the parts of the human experience that are indescribable for most of us. He does it again in his latest book of poetry called "Time Is A Mother." It's his first since the death of his mother from cancer in 2019. And that's where we started our conversation, that most universal kind of loss that is so different for each of us.

OCEAN VUONG: I think for me, it was hard to believe that someone could vanish. You know, the worst moment for me came actually two years after she was gone. And I realized what many people have already realized, was grief is not linear. And I thought I had it all figured out. I was so smug in my healing that I thought, you know, two years gone. I can - I'm teaching again. I'm writing. And then one day I woke up in the middle of the night, 2 in the morning, and I thought, oh, God, I got to tell my mom this thing. I had this brilliant idea I want to tell her. And I get out of bed. I go all the way downstairs in the dark, like - you know, like a madman. And I turn right into my living room, turn on the light, and I just gasp, and I thought, gosh, she's gone. And I just sat down and sobbed. I wanted to run in every direction at once and just call for her.

And I think when we lose particularly a parent, we realize that we are children again, you know? They were always our North Star. We looked to them to know where we stood. And so there was this vacuum space. And I think the only thing I could do was go back to poetry, which was the form where I had most pleasure. I wanted to face that blank page and fill it with an innovation that led me to, you know, the rest of my life.

MARTIN: I mean, yes, you focus on the inevitable darkness of grief but also how that grief is reconciled through resilience and even moments of joy, that they must coexist, right?

VUONG: What I didn't expect was a truly universal sensation of losing one's mother. I'm skeptical of the universal, you know? I'm skeptical of how true it could be. But when it comes to watching your mother take her last breath, I thought, wait a minute; this is what so many sons and daughters and children have experienced since the beginning of our species. They've felt this moment. And it made me, you know, realize when I was having a bad day or having a rough day at work, I look at someone and I said, oh, they lost their mother already. Or if it's someone much younger, I said, they're going to lose their mother. And all of a sudden, I'm just so close to them. I've said, that's the bridge; that's the bridge where we will meet each other eventually. It makes you kinder in a very fundamental way.

MARTIN: Where do you think we see that most vividly in this particular collection?

VUONG: There's this one moment. It's a very simple poem, a list poem, and just called "Reasons For Staying." I lost my uncle, who's also in this book. You know, this book is full of ghosts. I lost my uncle in 2012 to suicide. He'd had a long struggle with mental illness, which runs in our family. And, you know, I wrote this poem as a list, which - the most simplest forms of poetry. And I wanted to name the things that made me stay on this earth. In one of the lists, it was just watching my mother put on blush in front of the mirror before heading to chemotherapy. And to me, that moment is such a thesis, I think, for the rest of my life and for everything that I've done, which is - when you're trying to fight for your life, you're also fighting to preserve beauty. Like, you could still control how you look, even as your body is falling apart. And there is something so human to that, you know? She taught me so much, just watching her prepare to go to chemotherapy. And I said, if I'm lucky enough, I want to live my life so that I can be this careful to myself and be this powerful, even when I'm ill or sick and so much is out of my hands.

MARTIN: Throughout the book, there seems to be this tension around time - right? - the past and the future. Is it a generous force? Is it a negative force in your life?

VUONG: Oh, it's all of the above. It's also disorienting. It's also malleable, you know? I think I wanted to name my book "Time Is A Mother" because I didn't think it was true that we should always gender it in the male form that we traditionally have as a culture - father time stops for no one. And to me, time is much more motherly because it gives birth to the present. Everything we do is made possible by the capacity of time to hold us. And when I lost my mother, I realized that my life has been lived in only two days - today, when she's gone, and then the massive, vast yesterday when she was with me. And no matter how much - how many weeks or months have come since I lost her, I can't count them. They don't feel like discernable, individual time units other than just two days, just great demarcation of absence and presence.

MARTIN: I mean, when you sit down to produce, to build, to create art, are you fixated on the yesterday? Can you shake it?

VUONG: It's the name of the job, you know? I think it's the job description. And a lot of folks ask me, how can you be so vulnerable in your work? How can you look at difficult histories, personal and political and historical, and keep going? How do you take care of yourself? And I said, I signed up for this, you know? I don't think it's a burden to look at everything that is human, the joys and the difficulty. I'm not saying it's for everyone. I'm also not saying it's the hardest job in the world. But this is the task at hand, is to not turn away from the light and the dark. And that is the poet's job.

MARTIN: Ocean Vuong's new book of poems, "Time Is A Mother," is out tomorrow.

If you or someone you know may be considering suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text HOME - H-O-M-E - to 741741. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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