The Problem with Mothers
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
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
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
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.