One Review and 12 Lists:
Inspired by Ocean Vuong
by Shari Zollinger
Illustrations by Holli Zollinger
This issue, I bent the shape of astrological space to include a review of Ocean Vuong’s Time Is a Mother in tandem with a set of Zodiacal list poems for each sign. In light of Vuong’s own list poem and inspired by his idea of poems that “track the debris of living,” I can only hope this unlikely marriage feels seamless.
* * *
I happened upon a radio interview with Ocean Vuong recently (Terry Gross, NPR, Fresh Air). He was being interviewed about his newest collection of poetry, Time Is a Mother. I was taken by Vuong’s vulnerability as he spoke, elegiacally and with grief, about a book signing with his mother in attendance. When her presence was noted, the audience applauded her. Vuong tenderly articulated the heartbreak of hearing the applause. He’d come to understand his mother as the true artist, an immigrant from Vietnam, who’d spent her years working in a nail salon. He believed that to be a true survivor like his mother one had to be creative, and that survival might be the highest and greatest act of creativity—one worthy of applause.
This collection was published after Vuong’s mother died of breast cancer. He ritualizes grief in each poem, with his mother/muse bound to each stanza, even if the poem isn’t about her. The book also sits under the spell of a title that holds a double entendre. One, time is a visceral bedmate when we’ve lost someone essential to our identity (someone like our mother) and two, that time, profanely yet sacredly, can, in all its rawness, hurt like a mother.
In the interview Vuong read from his poem “Amazon History of a Former Nail Salon Worker.” It’s a list poem with each stanza defined by months and what was in his mother’s Amazon queue as she died of cancer. This is the first stanza:
Advil (ibuprofen), 4 pack
Sally Hansen Pink Nail Polish, 6 pack
Clorox Bleach, industrial size
Diane hair pins, 4 pack
Seafoam handheld mirror
“I Love New York” T-shirt, white, small
Vuong speaks to this poem as a way to track the debris of living and that objects speak clearly—we buy because we hope. He uses the entire course of the collection to inhabit many themes: queerness, sexuality, alienation, growing up as a person of color. Yet this collection always comes back to his origins, the indelible imprint of a mother on a body, even on a body of work.
This review of Time Is a Mother was first published online at Back of Beyond Books’ website.
March 21 to April 19
Red Pop Rocks.
Crepe paper, yellow.
Homemade firestarter, wax, dryer lint, pinecones.
Crayolas. Silver worn thin.
April 20 to May 20
Two wineglass stains on the windowsill.
Hot water bottle.
May 21 to June 20
One cat, the curiouser the better.
Three friendships that yield delight.
June 21 to July 22
One copy of Joan Didion’s list.
Three bins of pajamas.
A window in every room.
Refrigerator magnet of Frida Kahlo.
July 23 to August 22
One hairdresser who’s become a close friend.
Old ticket stubs.
Flashlights and candles.
The recurring dream of conducting a symphony.
August 23 to September 22
Cellar full of preserves.
Top-of-the-line vacuum, and for that matter,
cleaning supplies that can be described as sexy.
To-go menus, multiples.
September 23 to October 22
1000-piece puzzle of Monet’s Garden.
Memoirs about relationship.
October 23 to November 21
Spell books, yet great annoyance at spell check.
True crime queued, streaming.
Nostalgia from all those crushes.
November 22 to December 21
Lonely Planet guide to everywhere.
Plans laid at the door.
David Chang’s Lucky Peach.
Journals as adventure logs.
December 22 to January 19
Apples and apples.
Wild foraged mushrooms.
Portal to past and future, present
always in the middle.
Time as reality, time as abstraction.
January 20 to February 18
A tendency to hang clothes on the line.
Cryptocurrency, or a penchant for mining.
Kites, for windy days.
February 19 to March 20
Actual dancing shoes.
A periodic table of the elements tattoo.
Other pets, probably dogs.