My Top Five Poems about Motherhood

With Mother’s Day coming up next Sunday, I’m adding to last year’s list of poems that I love about motherhood. Enjoy!

1) From “Thanking My Mother for Piano Lessons” by Diane Wakoski (full text here):

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.
Love is a man
with a mustache
gently holding me every night,
always being there when I need to touch him;
he could not know the painfully loud
music from the past that
his loving stops from pounding, banging,
battering through my brain,
which does its best to destroy the precarious gray matter when I
am alone;
he does not hear Mrs. Hillhouse’s canary singing for me,
liking the sound of my lesson this week,
telling me,
confirming what my teacher says,
that I have a gift for the piano
few of her other pupils had.

When I touch the man
I love,
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.

2) From “Waterwings” by Cathy Song (full text here):

I watch the circles
his small body makes
fan and ripple,
disperse like an echo
into the sum of water, light and air.
His imprint on the water
has but a brief lifespan,
the flicker of a dragonfly’s delicate wing.

This is sadness, I tell myself,
the morning he chooses to leave his wings behind,
because he will not remember
that he and beauty were aligned,
skimming across the water, nearly airborne,
on his first solo flight.
I’ll write “how he could not
contain his delight.”
At the other end,
in another time frame,
he waits for me—
having already outdistanced this body,
the one that slipped from me like a fish,
floating, free of itself.

3) From “The Puppet of the Wolf,” by Margaret Atwood (full text here):

This is a miracle, there is never
any death:
the wolf comes back whenever
he is called,
unwounded and intact;
piglets jump from my thumbs.

My dying right
hand, which knots and shrinks
drier and more cynical
each year, is immortal,
briefly, and innocent.

Together with my left hand, its
enemy and prey, it chases
my daughter through the warm air,
and muted with soapsuds, lifts her
into the water.

4) From “Taking Notice,” #13, by Marilyn Hacker:

…In
another room, my daughter, home from school,
audibly murmurs “spanking, stupid, angry
voice” — a closet drama where I am
played second-hand to unresisting doll
daughters. Mother and daughter both, I see
myself, the furious and unforgiven;
myself, the terrified and terrible;
the child pushed into autonomy;
the unhealed woman hearing her own voice damn
her to the nightmares of the brooding girl.

5) From “Wanting a Child” by Jorie Graham (full text here):

Sometimes I’ll come this far from home
merely to dip my fingers in this glittering, archaic
sea that renders everything
identical, flesh
where mind and body
blur. The seagulls squeak, ill-fitting
hinges, the beach is thick
with shells. The tide
is always pulsing upward, inland, into the river’s rapid
argument, pushing
with its insistent tragic waves — the living echo,
says my book, of some great storm far out at sea, too far
to be recalled by us
but transferred
whole onto this shore by waves, so that erosion
is its very face.

Our Diets, Ourselves

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Reading a review of Michael Pollan‘s new book, Cooked, in the Washington Post, I was struck by this passage from the book:

Cooking — of whatever kind, everyday or extreme — situates us in the world in a very special place, facing the natural world on one side and the social world on the other. The cook stands squarely between nature and culture, conducting a process of translation and negotiation.

My first thought was: you could say the same of poetry, or really any art form. But as a terrible cook – and one who is always looking for the quickest solution for dinner during “Unhappy Hour” with little kids – I’m envious of people who feel that kind of connection to their food and to the cooking process.

I recently had a physical and learned that I had gained ten pounds in the past year. This is not really a surprise; I had fallen into a pattern of rewarding myself with food on stressful days, eating too fast and not really processing what I was eating, and offering treats to the kids (and myself) whenever out and about. I’ve tried a number of diets over the years, from South Beach to Paleo, but thought that I needed more intervention, a refresher course in nutrition and balance. I decided that I wanted to get back to my college weight, about 20 pounds away.

I joined Weight Watchers’ Online program a few weeks ago, and although I’m cranky and often hungry (as on all diets), I feel like the low level of accountability (just tracking food consumption, weight, and activity online; no meetings to go to) is perfect for me. They use a system in which you are assigned a certain number of “points” for the day, which translate into portions of food, but as most fruits and vegetables are “free,” the natural tendency is to eat as many as possible. So at night, when I’ve eaten all my points for the day, I’m scarfing down oranges, cherry tomatoes, and olives (and wishing desperately that the latter came with a martini), rather than ice cream. You don’t have a counselor, just the hard numbers in front of you on your little spreadsheet. (And tons of online resources to make it easier; for example, this list of hundreds of restaurant foods translated into points.)

And though it hasn’t improved my cooking any, I think Mr. Pollan – an advocate for local, whole foods – would approve of my new fruit and vegetable obsession. :)

Robert Hass’s poem “Late Spring” beautifully articulates the “translation and negotiation” made possible through our food:

And then in mid-May the first morning of steady heat,

the morning, Leif says, when you wake up, put on shorts, and that’s it
for the day,

when you pour coffee and walk outside, blinking in the sun.

Strawberries have appeared in the markets, and peaches will soon;

squid is so cheap in the fishstores you begin to consult Japanese
and Italian cookbooks for the various and ingenious ways of preparing ika and
calamari;

and because the light will enlarge your days, your dreams at night
will be as strange as the jars of octopus you saw once in a fisherman’s boat
under the summer moon…

Kids at poetry readings

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Last night, I took an enormous leap of faith and took my first grader to her first poetry reading. This particular reading – part of the Iota Reading Series curated by Miles David Moore and hosted by Iota Club & Cafe in Arlington, Virginia – seemed a good fit. I promised her a brownie sundae, and packed a bag of books, paper/crayons, and other items to keep her entertained while I listened. 

Poetry readings can be a wild card: profanity happens, and just about any subject can come up in a poem. When that happened last night (and it was possible to see it coming) I whispered in her ear about what she was writing/drawing/reading to distract her. I suppose at those times we could have taken a bathroom break as well. We hear “adult content” in public places anyway (just take a ride on the Metro to hear plenty of choice words, not redeemed by any possible artistic value). Explanations must be given at some point; she knows that adults sometimes drink different drinks than kids (alcohol, soda with caffeine), and make different choices (in behavior, language), so I felt I could handle whatever questions might emerge.

She loved it, and amazingly, asked when we could go to another one. Part of it was probably the brownie sundae and being out after her usual bedtime, but she also seemed to view other poets as exotic creatures (“Is she a poet? Is he a poet?”) and liked the lit-up stage and the bar stools. She paid more attention to the poetry than I’d anticipated, quoting lines back to me later, and citing particular poems (“I loved the pirate poem where they walked the plank.”). I did miss the usual moments of reflection afterwards; when my mind would normally be buzzing with the energy of the evening, I was bombarded with questions on the way home: “How did they get those lights to work? Can I get some for my room? Can I read up on the stage next time?”

She came out of the reading with a book she had written and illustrated, “Humphrey Saves the Cow,” about a heroic hamster who has to use advanced engineering skills (and tissues, string and rubber bands) to create a parachute for a cow falling from an airplane during a tornado. (Now, there’s a poem.) :)

One of my favorite poems by Sylvia Plath is “Child,” which illustrates the perfect vision that we all begin with:

Your clear eye is the one absolutely beautiful thing.
I want to fill it with color and ducks,
The zoo of the new

Whose name you meditate –
April snowdrop, Indian pipe,
Little

Stalk without wrinkle,
Pool in which images
Should be grand and classical

Not this troublous
Wringing of hands, this dark
Ceiling without a star.

Connections

lava_lamp

As I write this, I’m on hold with a Verizon representative, who has left me on hold for six minutes as he investigates why our internet connection keeps dropping every five minutes. For every minute that goes by without hearing his voice, I know (from prior experience, unfortunately) my chances increase for being hung up on. I’m now up to minute 26 on this call. When will he return?

I participated in a poetry reading on Saturday which – in the way that good readings do – renewed my interest in my own work and in others’, gave me a surge of energy and made me remember why I write poetry even when most of the world gives it a thumbs-down and a broad yawn. Sometimes at a reading, you feel that the writers are connected, that they are all heading for the same place, though stylistically getting there in different vehicles. This was such a reading, when humor, image, feeling came together into a wondrous whole that echoed the newborn spring weather.

One poem that particularly affected me was Michael Gushue’s “Poem Beginning Inappropriately With A Line By Marianne Moore,” which invokes the image of a lava lamp. I still use my lava lamp from college; when I come downstairs in the morning, it’s often the first thing I turn on. I was sick a number of times this winter, and watching the teal globes pinging the glass, and each other, as the bulb heated somehow helped me through the dreary winter days. A reminder of heat, of connection?

Here’s an excerpt from my favorite “lava lamp poem,” from Gushue’s new chapbook, Pachinko Mouth:

…It’s a banana peel
cosmos out there–you can’t controlfreak
how to slip, but, you know, when I fall,

I want to fall for you. Why? Because lava
lamps tell time, and there’s a lot of beauty
in chaos.

… What is it time tells us?
To rise towards each other. If we pull
apart, break up, it’s the heat building
inside. If we hunker down, we’re one.

Spring Break: heading for the sea

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With my older daughter home from school for the week, my mom and stepdad braved the long car drive down to the Outer Banks with me and the girls, for a few days in a hotel by the beach. Though the girls wanted to spend most of our visit at the indoor pool (and I in the adjoining hot tub), we visited our usual summer haunts: Kelly’s for seafood and warm sweet potato biscuits, Duck’s Cottage for books and coffee, and The Kids’ Store for toys.

I have a love-hate relationship with the beach. When I was growing up, we went to Virginia Beach every summer, and by my teens, I often preferred to read in the hotel room rather than face sunburn and sand-induced itchiness. The idea of the beach was often better than the thing itself. But I always liked the salty smell as our car neared the ocean, and the rush- then-fade of the waves crashing.

This excerpt from Seamus Heaney’s poem “Oysters” captures the tang and textures of the shore:

Our shells clacked on the plates.
My tongue was a filling estuary,
My palate hung with starlight:
As I tasted the salty Pleiades
Orion dipped his foot into the water.
______________________________
…I ate the day
Deliberately, that its tang
Might quicken me all into verb, pure verb.

Asking for what you want: submissions and gender

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My two daughters – let’s call them OD and YD – resemble me in many predictable ways. Seven-year-old OD has hair that relentlessly tangles in the same spot as mine, loves writing and rhyme, and is a tomboy in the best sense of the word. Three-year-old YD has my oversized cheeks, laid-back manner, and love of animals.

But even at their young ages, they exceed me in confidence and general courageous action. OD is a skilled negotiator; when she encounters a “no,” she rephrases the question again and again, looking for any cracks in my argument, and steadily moves toward a settlement. Younger YD hasn’t this skill yet, and relies on the simple “broken record” method of toddlers, which she knows can’t be ignored.

This week, you may have read this article on the male/female ratios of publication for more influential magazines, inspired by the annual VIDA count.  Rob Spillman, the editor of Tin House – one of the few publications that improved its ratio – had this to say about the process of encouraging submissions by women:

“After VIDA’s initial count three years ago,” Spillman said, “you would think others would move toward gender equality, or at least make a gesture toward it. It really isn’t rocket science. For us, the VIDA count was a spur, a call to action. Our staff is 50/50 male-female, and we thought we were gender blind. However, the numbers didn’t bear this out.” So why not?

“We did a thorough analysis of our internal submission numbers and found that the unsolicited numbers are evenly split, while the solicited (agented, previous contributors, etc.) were 67/33 male to female. We found that women contributors and women we rejected with solicitations to resubmit were five times less likely to submit than their male counterparts. So we basically stopped asking men, because we knew they were going to submit anyway, and at the same time made a concerted effort to re-ask women to contribute. We also adjusted our Lost & Found section, which featured short pieces on under-appreciated writers or books. We had been asking 50/50 writers, but the subjects were coming back 80/20 male to female, meaning that both men and women were writing about men versus women writers. We then started asking both male and female writers if there are any women writers they would like to champion. It has been a total editorial team effort, and each editorial meeting we take a look at our upcoming issues to see where we are for balance. Again, these are all simple solutions. What I found interesting was that we had all assumed that we were gender balanced, when in fact we weren’t. Now, with a concerted effort, we know that we are.”

Spillman’s comments were eye-opening to me; I hadn’t thought much about how “submission behaviors” might be different for women and men. But I do fit into the more submissive group that he describes: when rejected once or twice by a publication, I tend to scratch it off my list and move on – something that the men, at least the ones submitting to prestigious Tin House, tend not to do. Even though I know the primary rule of getting published is “Submit, Submit, Submit,” there is still something in me that has trouble trying again after that initial rejection.

It appears I need to take a page from my daughters’ playbooks: ask, and ask, and ask again. The fourth section of Denise Levertov’s “Matins” reminds us of the importance of “following through:”

iv.

A shadow painted where
yes, a shadow must fall.
The cow’s breath
not forgotten in the mist, in the
words. Yes,
verisimilitude draws up
heat in us, zest
to follow through,
follow through,
follow
transformations of day
in its turning, in its becoming.

My Favorite Irish Poets

clovers

 

I won’t be one of the many imbibing on St. Patrick’s Day this Sunday. But as a fan of Irish poetry – at least that written in English – I wanted to share a few of my favorite moments.

Contemporary Irish poet Eavan Boland beautifully extracts a place from its political past in “How We Made a New Art on Old Ground.” Here’s an excerpt (full text is here):

A famous battle happened in this valley.
You never understood the nature poem.
Till now. Till this moment—if these statements
seem separate, unrelated, follow this

silence to its edge and you will hear
the history of air: the crispness of a fern
or the upward cut and turn around of
a fieldfare or thrush written on it.

The other history is silent: The estuary
is over there. The issue was decided here:
Two kings prepared to give no quarter.
Then one king and one dead tradition.

________________________________________

I try the word distance and it fills with
sycamores, a summer’s worth of pollen
And as I write valley straw, metal
blood, oaths, armour are unwritten.

…what we see
is what the poem says:
evening coming—cattle, cattle-shadows—

and whin bushes and a change of weather
about to change them all: what we see is how
the place and the torment of the place are
for this moment free of one another.

 

In “The Cave Painters,” contemporary poet Eamon Grennan describes the light we find in an art composed in darkness. The full text is here, but here’s an excerpt:

They’ve left the world of weather and panic
behind them and gone on in, drawing the dark
in their wake, pushing as one pulse
to the core of stone. The pigments mixed in big shells
are crushed ore, petals and pollens, berries
and the binding juices oozed
out of chosen barks.

___________________________________________

We’ll never know if they worked in silence
like people praying—the way our monks
illuminated their own dark ages
in cross-hatched rocky cloisters,
where they contrived a binding
labyrinth of lit affinities
to spell out in nature’s lace and fable
their mindful, blinding sixth sense
of a god of shadows—or whether (like birds
tracing their great bloodlines over the globe)
they kept a constant gossip up
of praise, encouragement, complaint.

It doesn’t matter: we know
they went with guttering rushlight
into the dark; came to terms
with the given world; must have had
—as their hands moved steadily
by spiderlight—one desire
we’d recognise: they would—before going on
beyond this border zone, this nowhere
that is now here—leave something
upright and bright behind them in the dark.

 

The last two stanzas of Yeats’ “Among School Children” remind us that our labors – how we “blossom” and “dance” – are gifts we bring to the world, imbued with their own mystery. (The full text is here.)

VII

Both nuns and mothers worship images,
But those the candles light are not as those
That animate a mother’s reveries,
But keep a marble or a bronze repose.
And yet they too break hearts — O presences
That passion, piety or affection knows,
And that all heavenly glory symbolise —
O self-born mockers of man’s enterprise;

VIII
Labour is blossoming or dancing where
The body is not bruised to pleasure soul.
Nor beauty born out of its own despair,
Nor blear-eyed wisdom out of midnight oil.
O chestnut-tree, great-rooted blossomer,
Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?

 

And finally, Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney finds his path in “Digging:”

The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.

 

Update, 3/15/2013: After I posted the above, many of my well-read Facebook friends chimed in with additional recommendations of Irish poets. Just click on these links for beautiful work by Paul Durcan, Dennis O’Driscoll, Ciaran Carson, and Richard Murphy. Plus, a great selection from the Poetry Foundation. Happy St. Patrick’s Day!