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Lucy Van

Every time I open Ocean Vuong’s Time Is a Mother, that Sam & Dave lyric ‘Hold on, I’m comin’!’, pops into my head. Is it ars poetica? Hold on: language, arranged in a holding way, might help us manage loss, though no hold will forestall it. I’m coming: the radical presence of the poetic speaker, whose ecstatic ‘now’ of speech exists in strange tension with the past, a thing lost, that full and irretrievable ‘then’. Anne Carson has written memorably of the strange telescoping of now and then in lyric poetry. This is the dilemma of the poet–lover: ‘pinned in an impossible double bind, victim of novelty and recurrence at once.’ Or, as Vuong puts it, ‘[t]he way Lil Peep says I’ll be back in the mornin’ when you know how it ends.’

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Good poetry uncovers the secret in the manifest, and the manifest in the secret. Three new collections throw this paradox into vibrant, unsettling relief. Each book deserves a broad readership. Each beats back the lethargic thinking that has invaded society under the cover of the pandemic.

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