Poetry book “Time is a mother” by Ocean Vuong. A review – culture

Strong empathy has a downside: it ages badly. This also applies to art and, in addition to Ocean Vuong’s previous great success, is a second reason why his new volume of poetry “Time is a Mother” is loaded with a considerable burden. In his bestselling autobiographical novel “On Earth we are briefly magnificent” and the volume of poetry “The Night Sky with Outgoing Wounds”, which was published in the US a little while ago and in Germany a little later, Vuong made the permeability of strong in. dominant stylistic principle. The novel also rose to the most sensitive genres: as a letter to his mother, who, however, could not read and thus remained an eternally inaccessible recipient.

Now, after three years in which Vuong has not published a new book, the question arises as to how literature that works with such rapid emotional moments can continue. Should not poems that focus entirely on a mother in the title of the book be emotionally overwhelming, especially given the sad fact that the poet died of breast cancer at the age of less than sixty?

On the positive side: so far not all, not even most texts try to respond to the hermetically blinding headline sentence that defines time as mother. Most poems, whether ten pages or only half a page, can not be reduced to a thematic denominator, from shoveling snow in the bitter cold to televised war photos, from sterile hospital beds to diving. weakly under the guillotine sky, from snippets of quotes to fragments of memories, from meeting midnight with a silent bull to say goodbye to a drug-related death.

Poetry between modern, everyday classical notes and slam poetry

This seems pleasantly vague, after all a book of poetry is not a novel, but rather an unused quarry that changes the look and movement of the landscape, or a box of pegs that it inserts semi-blindly. In “Time is a Mother” among the many gravel and rubble, you can always find rare earth and one or the other rough diamond or smile for the summarized claim that the writer in the poem “The Last Queen of Antarctica” is not a writer but an underwater faucet. Someone pierces his fingers in sharp-edged linguistic images, pleasantly irritated with “fresh, confused bones,” with eyes like “raindrops in a nightmare,” and at the appearance of the two lovers as “gasping trout.” It takes a breath of pleasure when the poet at the heart of “American Legend” finally finds a phone to get out of an unwanted walk with his father, who is always drunk.

Even more than in the previous work, Vuong’s lyrical photographs express the intention to direct a surreally impregnated image of very small things, of few and transient things that can be caught almost “between the thumb and forefinger. “. However, the poems of this volume do not always manage to arrange their lyrical fragments in a convincing poetic form. Much simply breaks off in a moment, ends with the same tension as the others begin, wavy monotonously behind a colon that pretends to be a caesarean section.

Color adjectives sit in spaces like filling words, smearing midnight green, cheerful yellow, and blood blue, which might have remained a harsh and irritating coincidence. A poem about a nail salon employee’s order list on Amazon seems a bit desperately late in the list of highly toxic sounding materials and colorful plastic leisure crafts. Metapoetically exposed linguistic tools also relate very well, where a syllable quickly becomes a bullet, a word becomes an insect, a part of the body that is vaguely remembered is decomposed into an incomplete sentence. For long periods, the impression prevails that poems bury their heads in the sand somewhere halfway between classical modernism, everyday memories, and the clashes of poetry.

Ocean Vuong: Time is a mother. Translated from English by Anne-Kristin Mittag. Hanser, Munich 2022. 112 pages, 20 euros.

But then the fascinating part of the “art novel” comes out of the fog. At the end of a “seemingly endless wander”, the protagonist of this longer proa poem finds a cassette, presses the back button and witnesses a flood of images showing formative scenes from a man’s life that could be himself: the signatures disappear from the books of a well-known writer before being hidden back from the spotlight on lonely streets. The two lovers are first naked, then dressed again: “Their clothes are returned to them like fallen laws.” Images of the Middle East war are being televised – it’s supposed to be the first Gulf War, because tanks are coming back from Iraq for the second time.

This deal should also be defended against suspicion of kitsch, but can argue in its defense that the life of the return is not constantly linear, but jumps incredibly: A shot fired does not return to the barrel, a friend named Kelvin dies and remains dead. , he “does not sit in the coffin to kiss the forehead of his father, Mr. Rios”. From this it can be concluded: In the poem, life is shown as an artist and not as a bildungsroman, time is not accumulated biographically, but is burned and destroyed picture by picture. The best poem in the volume ends with the words “here at the end”, closing the circle again in here and so on at the time from which the other poems of the volume rarely erupt, though their contents are constantly buried in reminiscences. .

In Friedrich Schiller’s theory, poetry is called naive if it unfolds in harmony with its subject based on an ancient pattern, while elegy, idyll and satire are sentimental, ie poetic forms that try to overcome the distance from their subject without any prospect of success. . Ocean Vuong’s new poems are read as fragments of sentimental forms in a naive mask: most of them are elegy, with occasional flashes of a transient and impossible idyll. There is no room for satire, because even this, a tendency towards lack of humor, feeds a sensibility that is not as fresh and confused as in Vuong’s first two books. It would have been desirable for these poems to have felt called to be the mother of all time more often than in “The Artist’s Romance” or, as in the dramatically condensed opening poem “Taurus”, to have been made attempt to have it. raised. What remains is the vague impression of a presence immersed in reminiscences, which pulls the teeth out of the rest of the time.

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