Time is a Mother by Ocean Vuong, pub. Penguin Press In Not Even , the poem from which Ocean Vuong’s astonishing new book takes its title, he begs his body to be “more than what I’ll pass through”. He longs for a reality in which a protracted experience with loss (the death of his mother, the end of his relationship, the precarious condition of his mental health against the sting of such traumas) will yield a person who is not broken beyond repair – a person who like the poem tersely concludes, is “screaming and enough”. The weight of that hopeful yearning permeates this piercing collection of poetry, resulting in the most beautiful work Vuong has given us to date. Time is a Mother is a collection of meditations on piecing the self together after it has been ravaged by heartache and despair, two forces made an inevitable part of the human experience by time, which is unsparing. ‘It’s like a mantra, a prayer’: how poetry can help your mental health In each poem, Vuong’s speaker wants re-entry into a life of fullness and joy, but he must go through a process – often thorny – of rediscovering himself and facing pain head-on so that he apprehends the wisdom of The Last Dinosaur : “I was made to die but I’m here to stay.” This is no easy lesson to learn, and Vuong’s insistent use of enjambement throughout the book brilliantly matches the dizziness of uncertainty and self-doubt that accompanies any attempt to make sense of personal devastation. The poems wonder as the reader wanders through them, replete with syntactical roadblocks that mirror the heartbreaking disorientation of the speaker. Vuong resists the simplicity of traditional verse at every turn, innovating within a structural jaggedness that speaks to psychological distress as well as to the possibility that beauty can be contained within darkness. But he is careful not to conclude that darkness is beauty. It may be necessary and unavoidable, but poems like Tell Me Something Good remind us that we may experience “standing in a minefield” (a place where beauty is decidedly difficult to find) before we realise it might be a place “where you will learn to dance”. This act of dancing is much more than merely coping. For Vuong, it is communing with (and accepting) the version of oneself that can be revealed only through the experiences life throws at us, an idea he encapsulates in No One Knows the Way to Heaven : “When you get here, I’ll show you this incredible thing we can do to mirrors just by standing still.” It is undesirable work to stand still through moments that threaten to leave us unhinged – through moments that do indeed leave us unhinged. But heaven, Vuong insists, or the calm of finding completion within ruin, is found from within. The journey towards that heaven is the masterly intonation of personal tragedy Vuong telegraphs in each of the book’s four sections. Though he often invokes his mother, whose presence hovers ghostlike in most of the poems, he also confronts versions of himself that make up a mosaic of suffering and emotional fragility. In poems such as Dear Peter , Beautiful Short Loser , Nothing and Skinny Dipping , Vuong reaches an impressive note of precision in capturing the intimacy of vulnerability and the cost of honesty. In Skinny Dipping , for example, he concludes with sombre clarity: “I thought the fall would kill me but it only made me real” In Nothing , a glorious prose poem that contemplates the dissolution of his relationship with his lover, he asks plaintively: “How can we know, with a house full of bread, that it’s hunger, not people, that survives?” Everywhere, Vuong’s surgical diction is on robust display – without ever being sunk by mawkishness or preciousness. Even the collection’s longer poems, like Künstlerroman (which refers to an artist’s coming of age) and Dear Rose , maintain the almost perfect sense of pacing and narrative integrity he establishes early on. Vuong’s language finds its purposefulness with seamless accuracy: no sense is lost with words that are decorative more than they are revealing. Rather, the poetic landscape Vuong constructs is luminous in its transcription of human struggle and rather magical in its ability to hew calm out of heaviness: “Then it came to me, my life. & I remembered my life the way an ax handle, mid-swing, remembers the tree. & I was free”.