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

Poet Ocean Vuong
Tom Hines
Poet Ocean Vuong

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.

Penguin Random House
/ Penguin Random House
/
Penguin Random House

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.