Book Bag: ‘Time is a Mother’ by Ocean Vuong; ‘Dr. Rosie Helps the Animals’ by Jennifer Welborn and Rozillia MH

  • OCEAN VUONG

  • Gazette file photo

Staff Writer
Published: 4/22/2022 8:48:21 AM

Time is a Mother
by Ocean Vuong; Penguin Press

 

Ocean Vuong has forged a remarkable literary path since his debut poetry collection, “Night Sky With Exit Wounds,” won a host of awards in 2016 and 2017, including a Whiting Award and Great Britain’s T.S. Eliot Prize. Vuong, who lives in Florence, followed that with 2019’s “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous,” a best-selling, semi-autobiographical novel that also won several honors and was long-listed for a National Book Award.

In his newest work, the poetry collection “Time is a Mother,” Vuong looks back on the death of his mother, Rose, from cancer a few years ago and tries to come to terms with the grief that has shrouded much of his life ever since. Like his first two books, “Time is a Mother” is a journey through memory, loss and pain — but it’s also about moving beyond that and possibly investing in his writing in a new way.

And like in those first two books, in “Time is a Mother” Vuong considers the unique circumstances that have brought him to this point in time. He was born in Vietnam and came to the U.S. when he was 2, then was raised in a tough neighborhood in Hartford, Connecticut by his mother, grandmother and two aunts. His mother was of mixed race, a result of an affair during the Vietnam War between his maternal grandmother and a U.S. soldier.

It’s a background that Vuong, an associate professor of English at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, touched on in an earlier poem: “Thus no bombs = no family = no me.”

In “Night is a Mother,” he relates a certain recklessness he’s sometimes driven to as he contends with his mother’s illness and death. In “American Legend,” the narrator, driving with his father in a car “big enough / for us to never touch,” deliberately takes a turn too fast so that he might have a brief moment of intimacy with his old man when the car flips:

“Maybe / I wanted, at last, to feel him / against me—& / it worked … he slammed / into me & / we hugged for the first time / in decades. It was perfect / & wrong, like money / on fire.”

“Beautiful Short Loser,” a five-page poem built on 47 short, separate lines, begins with an indelible image: “Stand back, I’m a loser on a winning streak. // I got your wedding dress on backward, playing air guitar in these streets.” But the poem also suggests the narrator is embracing who he is, regardless of pain and loss: “I’m done talking, officer, I’m dancing in the rain with a wedding dress & it makes sense.”

Vuong uses a number of forms in his new collection, from prose poems to free verse to a seemingly dry list in “Amazon History Of A Nail Salon Worker” (his mother was a longtime manicurist).

Yet that list reveals far more, tracking his mother’s purchases over 21 months as her cancer worsens: from Advil to maximum-strength pain relieving heat pads, from nail care products to chemo wear, from ramen noodles to a walker, an ashes urn, and a memorial plaque.

There’s also this item, a few months before the end: “Birthday card — “Son, We Will Always Be Together,” Snoopy design

“Time is a Mother” moves beyond the death of Vuong’s mother. Having been raised almost entirely by women, the poet has previously explored the toxic masculinity of his adopted country, and “Old Glory,” strung together with macho phrases and clichés, also speaks to that issue, the lines seeming to hurtle off the page like bullets: “Go in there / guns blazing, buddy. You crushed / at the show. No, it was a blowout. No, / a massacre. Total overkill. We tore / them a new one.”

And the poignant opening of “Dear Rose,” a lengthy elegy to his mother, recalls elements of “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous,” in which Vuong also directly addressed his mother: “Let me begin again now / that you’re gone Ma / if you’re reading this then you survived / your life into this one if / you’re reading this / then the bullet doesn’t know us / yet ...”

Ocean Vuong will read from and discuss “Time is a Mother” May 19 at 7 p.m. at First Churches in Northampton, in an event sponsored by Broadside Bookshop.

 

Dr. Rosie Helps the Animals
By Jennifer Welborn;
illustrated by Rozillia MH

 

A few years ago, Jennifer Welborn, a science teacher at Amherst Regional Middle School, was writing a children’s book and looking for an illustrator. She found one right in her classroom: a young woman by the name of Mahdia Rozillia Hunt, who was working there as a paraprofessional and impressed Welborn with her drawing.

Now Welborn and Hunt — the latter uses the name Rozillia MH for her work — have joined forces on “Dr. Rosie Helps the Animals,” a story about a young African American girl who, inspired by her mom’s work as a veterinarian, learns to help a wide range of critters herself, such as giraffe with a sore throat and a polar bear with a fever.

The story, Welborn told the Gazette in an interview in 2020, was designed in part to help promote the idea of women pursuing work in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields. Another inspiration was the work of her husband, Dr. Carlos Gradil, a wildlife veterinarian.

And for Rozillia MH, a self-taught artist, having the main character in the tale look like her was a welcome assignment.

“I was a big Harry Potter fan — books were my absolute world,” she told the Gazette. But “one thing I noticed was I’d read all these fantastic books, and none of the main characters represented me, even though they were fantastic. I still love them to this day, but I don’t feel like they represented me or other girls of color.”

In the story, Rosie spends time at her mother’s office when things aren’t too busy, watching and learning as her mom attends to dogs and other pets; her mother explains at one point how she uses aloe and even a bit of honey to soothe a cut on a dog’s ear.

After Rosie asks her mom other questions, she’s off to try her hand at helping other animals herself: treating a rabbit’s red ear with aloe, putting a bit of salt water in an elephant’s trunk to ease its stuffiness, and donning scuba gear to tend to an octopus with a bump on its head (Rosie treats it with a warm water compress).

You’ll have to read further along to see just how Rosie pulls off these impressive cures. Welborn says the book was partly inspired by seeing a real baby giraffe with a neck bandage that was being successfully treated at a veterinary center.

Proceeds from book sales will go to the Dr. Jodie G. Blackwell Scholarship Fund, which is being set up to provide scholarships to African American veterinary students.

In addition, there will be a book launch for “Dr. Rosie Helps the Animals” on April 30 from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Mill River Recreation Area in North Amherst; various activities are on tap, including book signings, a reading, and eating cake.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.


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