In new poems, Ocean Vuong looks at life after his mother's death Ocean Vuong's second poetry collection, Time is a Mother, grapples with time and its impermanence following his mother's death in 2019.

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

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


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.

Copyright © 2022 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.