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:

Geography Lesson

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.

--Chris Abani
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.

The Parcel

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
terracotta medal.
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,
slide away,
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
piano lessons
all those years,
keeping the memory of Beethoven,
a deaf tortured man,
in mind;
of the beauty that can come
from even an ugly
past.

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.

Originally Published: May 5th, 2009

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...

  1. May 5, 2009
     Jason Guriel

    There's a big anthology of poems on mothers, called White Ink, edited by Rishma Dunlop, that's worth a look. Lots of stuff in there.

  2. May 5, 2009
     Catherine Halley

    What a great idea, Camille. To give a poem. My mother's always buying Hallmark cards and underlining the sentimental poems inside for emphasis. \r

    The editors have also pulled together a bunch of poems from our archive for mother's. It's here:\r

    http://www.poetryfoundation.org/archive/tool.poem.occ.1.html?id=14\r

    And our favorites from a few years ago here:\r

    http://www.poetryfoundation.org/journal/article.html?id=178116\r

    More on mother's and poets here:\r

    http://www.poetryfoundation.org/journal/article.html?id=178157

  3. May 5, 2009
     Don Share

    The Chinese Mother’s Lullaby\r
    by Biddy Jenkinson\r

    Pull in your feet, little darling,\r
    so I can kiss your wee trotters\r
    while I fold under a toe\r
    and another one underneath.\r
    I bend a little piggie.\r
    I bend another little piggie\r
    And look at that naughty little piggie\r
    that is still sticking out.\r

    Now, now, my treasure,\r
    there is work to be done here.\r
    Your toes like fairy thimbles,\r
    the blossom of the foxglove.\r
    Like a calf that is spancelled\r
    or a hobble on a chicken,\r
    there will be swaddlings of silk\r
    on the feet of my dear.\r

    That my daughter now shrieks\r
    like a blue jay is no matter,\r
    she will sway in the future\r
    like a bamboo on a windy day\r
    or like a willow sapling.\r
    So I bend under the big toe\r
    and another toe after\r
    to form a foot like a lotus\r
    about to unfold.\r

    Poor Cliodhna has flat feet.\r
    Maire has huge ones.\r
    Peggy’s are like spades\r
    and Niamh’s like two rakes.\r
    Just hold still, my dearie,\r
    while I tighten your bindings.\r
    I’m only your mammy\r
    doing my very best for your sake\r

    Translated by Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill\r
    Poetry, April 2009

  4. May 5, 2009
     Desmond Swords

    Mother I will love you\r
    in a thousand years from now\r
    when the sands of time have worn our bones to dust\r
    and once more we rest within the film of earth\r
    which sprung us both to life.\r

    And mother I will love you\r
    when eternity holds us in its grasp\r
    pincered as memories\r
    of a long wound-out forgotten past\r
    which dissappears into the ether\r
    like a single rising breath\r

    to mingle as the sap of humanity\r
    and travel as sunlight ascending \r
    through consciousness in one short flash\r
    before darkness snaps and swallows us \r
    back into the womb.\r

    We'll sweep along on the winds to heaven\r
    and leap from star to star in chifon light \r
    striding towards that moment \r
    when the pith and gristle of existence \r
    can begin again. Our souls once more unfold\r
    upon the threshold at the nexus of life\r
    and swim from the shallows to the deep.

  5. May 5, 2009
     Miriam Levine

    Poems are a much better gift than the "Jewelry for Life" necklace--"Order by May 7th for Mother's Day," says the ad--which costs $590 for the chain and one bar. "Bar" is right! Each bar will be inscribed with the name of loved ones, and a date you must remember: birthdays, anniversaries, etc. You'll never forget an important date because you'll be wearing the information around your imprisoned neck. You will also have the satisfaction of showing off your loved ones. \r

    You can have your own name and birthday engraved on a bar. Very handy when your memory starts to crumble. When was I born? Not to worry. Just look at your necklace, provided you can remember your name. \r

    What would be the equivalent piece of jewelry for Fathers Day? I can't think of one, can you?

  6. May 5, 2009
     Tim Upperton

    FOR A FIVE-YEAR-OLD\r


    A snail is climbing up the window-sill\r
    Into your room, after a night of rain.\r
    You call me in to see, and I explain\r
    That it would be unkind to leave it there:\r
    It might crawl to the floor; we must take care\r
    That no one squashes it. You understand,\r
    And carry it outside, with careful hand,\r
    To eat a daffodil.\r

    I see, then, that a kind of faith prevails:\r
    Your gentleness is moulded still by words\r
    From me, who have trapped mice and shot wild birds,\r
    From me, who drowned your kittens, who betrayed\r
    Your closest relatives, and who purveyed\r
    The harshest kind of truth to many another.\r
    But that is how things are: I am your mother,\r
    And we are kind to snails.\r

    - Fleur Adcock

  7. May 6, 2009
     Robin Reagler

    On the Writers in the Schools (WITS) blog, we've published some sweet poems by children about their mothers: http://witsblog.org/category/mother/\r

    Robin

  8. May 6, 2009
     Gail White

    I admit that the first thing that came to my mind here was Anne Sexton's "Rapunzel" poem ("A woman who loves a woman/is forever young...")\r

    But then, to tell the truth, I wasn't very sentimental abour my mother.