Review: Identity Politics is a Mother (A review of Time is a Mother by Ocean Vuong)
By Hugh Blanton
A lot of bad poetry is being written in the name of identity politics, especially by poets who claim an identity that is not wholly theirs. Yes, Vuong is an Asian American, yes he is an immigrant, and yes, the country in which he was born had been in a long, horrible war. But Vuong emigrated when he was only two years old, was born more than a dozen years after the war ended, and never even visited Vietnam until after he became an adult, making his sense of loss and dislocation something less than authentic. The poems here of napalm dropped on schoolhouses, of discrimination against Amerasians in South Vietnam are the spectral experiences of other people. Vuong, however, has adopted them thoroughly and is building quite an acclaimed literary career out of it all.
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Time is a Mother is Ocean Vuong's second collection of poetry. The nervous, herky-jerky poems here fidget their way through en-dashed enjambments, staggered indents, and impossible opaqueness. There are a few moments of good writing and grace such as: "the way an ax handle, mid swing, remembers the tree" but even then he's just recycling and inverting an old African proverb. His poem "No One Knows the Way to Heaven" almost rescues itself from its break dance of gibberish, but in the end its pathos thwarts the attempt. Vuong has an overwhelming need to make the reader fall in love with his tragedy and sadness, a fault shared by most confessional poets.
Besides the mandatory identity politics that poetry publishing requires today, this book also gives us a good dose of the obligatory addiction/rehab. Vuong has been publishing poetry since 2010 and it isn't until this latest volume that we see him finally make it into inpatient rehab where the patients get plastic cups of methadone each day to break their addiction to drugs. There's a little of Franz Wright in Vuong's rehab poem "Dear Peter" where he says, "now finally maybe/ I'm winning even/ if it just looks like/ my fingers are shaking".
Although not as raunchy or debauched as the Verlaine/Rimbaud poems of Hombres, Vuong takes a weak shot at homoeroticism in his poem "Skinny Dipping":
I kept my hope
-blue Vans on
this whole time
to distract you
from my flat ass
did it work oh
Another poem, "Beautiful Short Loser" is racked with the same kitsch that puts paint-by-number velvet Elvis's on mobile home living room walls: "I got your wedding dress on backward, playing air guitar in these streets."
Publishing has never been a meritocracy, but there used to be a day when persistent writers with talent could rise up from nothing and become a success. Writers like Jack London and Henry Miller forewent wage employment to sit in front of their typewriters day after day, never giving up, writing for the love of it, literally starving for their art. Publishers today care little for good writing or talent. It had always been a poorly kept little secret that a writer's identity could get him or her published, if it were the right demographic, regardless of quality. Now they don't even try to keep it a secret. In Vuong's poem "Not Even" he freely admits: "I used to be a fag now I'm a checkbox." If there are any Jack Londons or Henry Millers out there pounding away at the blank page today, they will live and die anonymously.