Mother's Day is on the way
Mother’s Day is, for mailing purposes, essentially tomorrow. Attempting to be on top of this, I had picked out three perfect cards. One for my mother, one for my grandmother, and one for my godmother, women who are still alive and well and happily involved in my life. Bless them. Each would have a suggestion, for instance, as to where I might have stored the bag with the cards. But now, rather than turning to the online Hallmark store to find replacement Mother’s Day cards, I’m looking for poems that might speak to a grown woman's love for the key maternal figures in her life.
This isn’t as easy a task as I might have imagined it to be in the hours and days and years before I lost my store-bought remembrances. I want poems that speak to the vibrantly living women with whom I have complex but nourishing relationships. Though the poems may hearken back to days when I was young, I want poems about adult relationships with my mother(s). I’m thinking of something as honest and funny and sometimes fraught as that between Dorothy (Bea Arthur) and her mother, Sophia, on the Golden Girls. I’m looking for a poem that marks a kind of companionship that releases strict hierarchy. Poems that show loved women at the height of their game, being bright and funny and often far wiser and sharper than anyone else around:
To the Igbo everyone is family, everything
is connected, Grandmother explained.
Like the weave of this raffia mat, we intertwine,
see? This is the world to the Igbo.
Nodding, the German anthropologist licked
her pencil in concentration and wrote:
To the Igbo, the world is flat like a mat.
from Dog Woman
I am thinking, in presenting that Abani poem, that there is something important about the idea of recording my mothers’ memories and knowledge and my memories of my feelings about them. On May Day I spoke to my mother about her childhood memories of the delightful, springtime celebration she looked forward to until the mid-century threat of communism put a stop to May Day parades. Leave it to others (red scare believers, the anthropologist of Abani’s poem, those who would take control of documenting our feelings in scholarly histories as well as simple tokens like greeting cards) and all might be lost. Leave the recording and packaging of meaningful emotion only to Hallmark, and who knows what will be there to pass on.
There are dying arts and
one of them is
the way my mother used to make up a parcel.
Paper first. Mid-brown and coarse-grained as wood.
The worst sort for covering a Latin book neatly
or laying flat at Christmas on a pudding bowl.
It was a big cylinder. She snipped it open
and it unrolled quickly across the floor.
All business, all distance.
Then the scissors.
Not a glittering let-up but a dour
pair, black thumb-holes,
the shears themselves the colour of the rained-
on steps a man with a grindstone climbed up
in the season of lilac and snapdragon
and stood there arguing the rate for
sharpening the lawnmower and the garden pair
and this one. All-in.
The ball of twine was coarsely braided
and only a shade less yellow than
the flame she held under the blunt
end of the sealing wax until
it melted and spread into a brittle
Her hair dishevelled, her tongue between her teeth,
she wrote the address in the quarters
twine had divided the surface into.
Names and places. Crayon and fountain pen.
The town underlined once. The country twice.
It’s ready for the post
she would say and if we want to know
where it went to—
a craft lost before we missed it—watch it go
into the burlap sack for collection.
See it disappear. Say
this is how it died
out: among doomed steamships and outdated trains,
the tracks for them disappearing before our eyes,
next to station names we can’t remember
on a continent we no longer
recognize. The sealing wax cracking.
The twine unravelling. The destination illegible.
--Eavan Boland, from In a Time of Violence
Many of the poems that spring to mind when I think of good poems written to mothers are, in one way or another, about loss. Marge Piercy’s “My Mother’s Body,” Robert Hass’s “The World As Will and Representation,” Sharon Old’s “To See My Mother,” many poems in Trethewey’s Native Guard, the list goes on. Even my own poems on the subject often live in the world of what has been (often thankfully) abandoned. But what I want for Mother’s Day are poems of celebration.
I know poems like Lucille Clifton’s “lucy and her girls” wherein mothers set aside their tensions for a moment to sing praise to their living children. I’m wondering, Harriet crowd, can you list here some genuine praise songs from daughters to their mother figures? Poems like Toi Derricotte’s “Christmas Eve: My Mother Dressing” and Nikki Giovanni’s “Mothers” do not sugar coat even as they highlight the mothers’ beauty and/or wisdom. Poems like “Thanking My Mother for Piano Lessons” by Diane Wakowski are thoughtful even in praise:
…I want to thank my mother
for letting me wake her up sometimes at 6 in the morning
when I practiced my lessons
and for making sure I had a piano
to lay my school books down on, every afternoon.
I haven’t touched the piano in 10 years,
perhaps in fear that what little love I’ve been able to
pick, like lint, out of the corners of pockets,
will get lost,
into the terribly empty cavern of me
if I ever open it all the way up again….
…I want to thank my mother for giving me
all those years,
keeping the memory of Beethoven,
a deaf tortured man,
of the beauty that can come
from even an ugly
These are the grown up, poetic version of the construction paper and glitter glue notes I wrote in kindergarten. The lyric equivalent of the American Greeting card featuring a young woman and an older woman in audacious hats sitting on a bench together sipping tea. Sometimes that campy, sometimes that potentially sentimental. Joyful poems that, in their presentations of the affections between mothers and daughters, are thoroughly heartfelt.
Mother’s Day is right around the corner. I’d love to hear more of your ideas for good poems to send to good moms.
Poet and editor Camille T. Dungy was born in Denver but moved often as her father, an academic physician, taught at many different medical schools across the country. She earned a BA from Stanford University and an MFA from the University of North Carolina, Greensboro. Dungy’s full-length poetry publications include Trophic...