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Wednesday Shout Out
It’s tempting to invoke the phrase “Oedipus complex” in discussing this book by debut poet James Allen Hall; Mother (with a capital M), mythic figure, source of many glorious beginnings (and a few tragic endings), and indeed the defining lens to the worlds of the imagination and reality, is an unavoidable muse, an inescapable word uttered as an expression of wonder, a declamation of fear, and as the point of reference for things beautiful and dreadful. But Hall’s Mother moves beyond the son’s eye and takes shape as an independent body with agency and history outside male desire. She exists, with and without him:
Brief History of My Mother
My mother, fourteen, makes a girl
eat an entire can of Alpo.
At forty, she leaves her husband
for a man who wears women’s underwear.
Every Friday night of my childhood, she’s criminal.
The door creaks open for the same cop, his broad smile.
Bank of America calls for Marsha Hall.
I’m not in right now, she says.
My mother, thirteen, smokes mentholated cigarettes.
The burn dissolves to a tight hiss on her thigh.
She wakes to her father’s kiss and cannot breathe.
My mother promises, The abuse will stop with me.
She tries to die, once, by swallowing pills, choking
them up as I hold back her hair.
In green pants, orange sash: Miss Safety-Guard,
1982. She blacks out her front teeth, smiles at men
who cat-call to her on the corner, her stop sign in hand.
Their faces quicken from the slap of her unbeauty.
Tries to die, once, by standing in traffic
on a dirt road at 3 a.m. My mother, desperate for a Mack truck.
My mother asks the doctors to turn off her dying
father’s respirator. She watches him struggle to breathe.
My mother’s tombstone will read,
Gone to see my mother.
Note a few of the titles in this stunningly candid collection: “Portrait of My Mother as the Republic of Texas”; “Portrait of My Mother as Rosemary Woodhouse” (as in, Rosemary’s Baby; and “Portrait of My Mother as Self-Inflicting Philomena.” The many possible roles of this awesome figure speak to the spectrum of emotions that she’s capable of eliciting from the speaker. And he shifts his function in response to each: biographer, historian, supporting cast member, voyeur, therapist, guide, savior and other guises for the word “son.”
The terrible bond is blessing and affliction—the incarnation of gravitas. In the poem “Song” about the speaker’s birth, and Mother’s violence toward the nurse that would separate her from her child, the speaker observes: “My mother’s hand,/ the nurse’s mouth: I was born between them, calling/ from the open wound, wanting to heal her/ even before I could be heard.”
The non-linear timeline in the poem above suggests a rate of revelation—the mother’s formative moments disclosed, piecemeal and out of sequence, to the speaker, who collects them as life lessons of his own. And there is that hair-prickling moment in the end of the poem, in which the speaker envisions the mother’s death, but not without her sometimes flippant attitude toward trauma and the business of seriousness. The son is an apt pupil indeed.
But make no mistake, there is also much tenderness and respect for the Mother in this book, except that her three-dimensionality is consuming. In the poem “In Praise of Lies,” the speaker notes: “Wherever my mother is tonight,/ praise her. She invented the woman who taught me passion,/ not beauty, is the mother of truth.” And yet, in the poem “The End of Myth,” the following affirmation: “The myths do not instruct us in forgiveness. They only say/ whose wrath is wedded to whose form.”
This is an impressive and exceptional debut of a book that doesn’t shy away from the unkind politics of the dysfunctional family. There are no accusations here, nor regrets or histrionics; only the creation of bittersweet portraits that celebrates the love and strength that rises from the rubble.
(From Now You’re the Enemy, published by the University of Arkansas Press, 2008.)