Audio

The Problem with Mothers

May 9, 2006

Curtis Fox: Yep, you love your mother. And she drives you crazy too. I know, it’s complicated. Look at that, time’s up! That’ll be $175 and I’ll see you next week! This is the poetryfoundation.org podcast, I’m Dr. Curtis Fox. Today, the Problem with Mothers. Mother’s Day is upon us, it is a Hallmark holiday, but if we try to ignore it we will only feel more guilt about my mother — oops, — If we try to ignore it we will only feel more guilt about our mothers than we do already. So on today’s podcast we will look our ambivalent feelings about our mothers straight in the eye with the help of two poets; Sharon Olds and Cornelius Eady. Sharon Oldes writes intensely personal, confessional poems. Really a kind of emotional autobiography. The terrain she has staked out is strikingly similar to Freud’s. Her poetry has been described as “an erotics of family love and pain”. The first poem of hers we’re going to hear is called “Still Life”. The title is a double entendre. The poet remembers how her mother died while she herself was at a museum, going through an exhibit of Renaissance still life paintings. The reader is Charlotte Mayor.

 

Charlotte Mayor: Still Life, by Sharon Olds

At moments almost thinking of her, I was

moving through the still life show while my mother

had her stroke. She was teaching someone, three

times zones away, to peel and slice

a banana, in the one correct way,

and I was with the little leeks,

near the sweated egg, near the newts quick

and the newts gone over on their backs. An orange

trailed from its shoulders and stole of its rind,

the farther from the tree the more thinned and dried

the wasp was done with one sable guard-hair

in oil that had ground gold in it. She had

alerted me, from the start, to objects, she’d cried

out, in pain, from their shining. She held the

banana and lectured like a child professor on its

longitudes and divisible threes,

she raised her hands to her temples, and held them,

and screamed, and fell to her bedroom floor, and I

wandered, calm, among oysters, and walnuts,

mice, apricots, coins, a golden

smiling skull, even a wild flayed

hare strung up by one foot like a dancer

leaping, I strolled, ignorant

of my mother, among the tulips, beetles in their

honey stripes, she lay while I walked

blind through music. When I learned her spirit

had left her body while I was immersed

in pretty matter, I almost felt something had

served her right — what my mother had thought

when her mother had died, what I’d comforted her

            for thinking.

Once, in that comfort, I saw my face over her

shoulder, in a gilded mirror.

 

Curtis Fox: Charlotte Mayor reading Sharon Olds’ poem, “Still Life”. The end of that poem is so surprising, it’s worth going over again. The speaker has just described how she was enjoying herself at a museum at the exact moment her mother was dying on the other side of the country. You would think that this would lead to a crisis of guilt, but no.

 

Charlotte Mayor: When I learned her spirit / had left her body while I was immersed / in pretty matter, I almost felt something had / served her right

 

Curtis Fox:… served her right, wow. A terrible thing to think when your mother has just died, and no doubt a hard thing to own up to in a poem. And amazingly, it’s the same thing her mother felt when her mother’s mother had died. At the time, the speaker remembers trying to comfort her mother, and when she hugs her, she seems to intuit that she won’t be so different.

 

Charlotte Mayor: Once, in that comfort, I saw my face over her / shoulder, in a gilded mirror.

 

Curtis Fox: In the next poem we’re going to hear from Sharon Olds, the tables are turned on the poet. She is now the poet, and her daughter is coming home from her freshmen year of college for Thanksgiving, and the speaker is looking forward to it like life itself. We may have complicated feelings toward our mothers, but as this poem demonstrates, a mother’s feelings toward a child are often something else entirely. The reader is Eliza Foss.

 

Eliza Foss: First Thanksgiving, by Sharon Olds

 

When she comes back, from college, I will see

the skin of her upper arms, cool,

matte, glossy. She will hug me, my old

soupy chest against her breasts,

I will smell her hair! She will sleep in this apartment,

her sleep like an untamed, good object,

like a soul in a body. She came into my life the

second great arrival, after him, fresh

from the other world—which lay, from within him,

within me. Those nights, I fed her to sleep,

week after week, the moon rising,

and setting, and waxing—whirling, over the months,

in a slow blur, around our planet.

Now she doesn’t need love like that, she has

had it. She will walk in glowing, we will talk,

and then, when she’s fast asleep, I’ll exult

to have her in that room again,

behind that door! As a child, I caught

bees, by the wings, and held them, some seconds,

looked into their wild faces,

listened to them sing, then tossed them back

into the air—I remember the moment the

arc of my toss swerved, and they entered

the corrected curve of their departure.

 

Curtis Fox: Eliza Foss reading “First Thanksgiving” by Sharon Olds.

 

Cornelius Eady: This poem is about a conversation I had with my mother a few years before she died.


Curtis Fox: The last poem we’re going to hear is by Cornelius Eady. He once asked his mother about her life before he was born, but he may not have gotten any closer to the truth.

 

Cornelius Eady: I asked her one day to tell me the story about how she and my father had met. She told me the story, which I wrote into a poem. Years later, after the poem was published, I asked her again and she told me a totally different story. But this is the story that I’m stuck with (LAUGHING).


Curtis Fox: The story is about why she married such a difficult man. The poem is called “I’m A Fool To Love You”.

 

Cornelius Eady: Some folks will tell you the blues is a woman,

Some type of supernatural creature.

My mother would tell you, if she could,

About her life with my father,

A strange and sometimes cruel gentleman.

She would tell you about the choices

A young black woman faces.

Is falling in love with some man

A deal with the devil

In blue terms, the tongue we use

When we don't want nuance

To get in the way,

When we need to talk straight.

My mother chooses my father

After choosing a man

Who was, as we sing it,

Of no account.

This man made my father look good,

That's how bad it was.

He made my father seem like an island

In the middle of a stormy sea,

He made my father look like a rock.

And is the blues the moment you realize

You exist in a stacked deck,

You look in a mirror at your young face,

The face my sister carries,

And you know it's the only leverage

You've got.

Does this create a hurt that whispers

How you going to do?

Is the blues the moment

You shrug your shoulders

And agree, a girl without money

Is nothing, dust

To be pushed around by any old breeze.

Compared to this,

My father seems, briefly,

To be a fire escape.

This is the way the blues works

Its sorry wonders,

Makes trouble look like

A feather bed,

Makes the wrong man's kisses

A healing.

 

Curtis Fox: Cornelius Eady reading his poem, “I’m A Fool To Love You”. We’ll be back next week with another poetryfoundation.org podcast. In the meantime, there’s an archive of podcasts and audio poems at poetryfoundation.org, along with feature articles and poetry news. If you want to let us know what you thought of this podcast, we’d love to hear from you. Email us at [email protected]. The music used in this podcast comes from Juana Molina. For the poetryfoundation.org podcast, I’m Curtis Fox. Thanks for listening.

Poems about mothers by Sharon Olds and Cornelius Eady.

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