My Mother Told Me

I have written many poems about my father. For several reasons that I won’t get into now, that is easier for me to do than to write poems about my mother. Oh, the Power of the Mother! I include three short poems below as glimpses into my mother, or perhaps they could be considered more as false starts in writing about her.

My Mother Told Me
when she was young, wild
roses grew in Iowa ditches
that tornadoes jump, the same
ditches where at age 12,
in blue jeans and sweat,
I hid in four-foot grass,
accompanied by bugs
in iridescent cloaks, where dust-
clouds settled after cars passed,
and where I could smell
the ocean in an endless sky.

All My Mother’s Babies
had eyes that shone black,
specks of light flickering
from under black tufts of fluff,
so she couldn’t help but stare
when my baby was born
with eyes green like the sea,
and a halo of fuzzy peach.

My Mother Sees Things
that aren’t there. This has always been.
She saw things long before her mother
returned from the grave after forty years
to join her for dinner. My mother knows
a woman is pregnant before the woman
herself knows. She calls the exact minute
I walk in the door from a 3,000-mile trip.
It is the difficulty in seeing what is in front
of her that has always perplexed me.

This winter, I have been going through the open Yale lectures by Langdon Hammer on Modern Poetry on you-tube. It’s a bit slow going but a good way to pass the time while I hand card my sheep’s wool on a cold winter night.

The last lecture I listened to was on the Imagist movement in the first two decades of the 20th century, which was the beginning of “Modern Poetry” and when poets such as, Robert Frost, Ezra Pound, Amy Lowell, T.S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams, Langston Hughes and Hilda Doolittle (H.D.) were beginning to publish. Their poems moved away from the use of rhetoric and the subjects found in poetry pre-1900, and moved towards the goal of distilling the poem down to its essence, moved towards a radical compression, and moved towards conversion from the prosaic to the essential.

It was in this context that Ezra Pound wrote one of the most famous short poems in American poetry:

In a Station of the Metro
The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.

My poems above are not image-poems as this one of Pound’s, but they are rooted in image, surely thanks to Pound and his contemporaries. What does image do for a writer and reader? Pound explained that the literary image is not “a memory of a prior reality, a reflection, but is rather something more like a new experience itself – not an imitation of a thing, but itself a kind of thing.” This experience (creating an image on paper) is in and of itself an event. The decisions made for the representation – Pound would say presentation – of the image create a different experience than the original experience. I cannot be in the past, recreate the past, or even convey the past. I can only convey these images that in this time, place, and context create and convey new meaning.

In an image, multiple elements occur simultaneously, giving an “instantaneity” or the suddenness of a multi-faceted experience.  This is what painting, photography, sculpture and other visual art do for us. Again, Pound: “An image is that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time.” The reader adds additional components to an image’s “complex” by bringing his or her own experiences to it.

“In a Station of the Metro” started out as a 30-line poem. By “cutting through rhetorical ornament” Pound was able to get to a sort of truth – but a truth that is somewhat ambiguous for the reader. Due to its extreme compression, there must be implications involved. What is implied from the images of faces in a crowd juxtaposed to petals on a wet black bough? What is implied by ditches full of thorny roses? (This was of course, pre-pesticide use, the pesticides obliterating them. And I took out the phrase “I was safe” that I had included with the description of sitting in the ditch. Too explanatory). What is implied by eyes green like the sea? What is implied by a mother returning from the grave to join you for dinner?

To unfold an image, diction and syntax must be carefully, carefully chosen so that the image presents the “complex instantaneously.” It is the presentation that “gives that sense of sudden liberation; that sense of freedom from time limits and space limits; that sense of sudden growth, which we experience in the presence of the greatest works of art.” (Pound, “A Few Don’ts by an Imagist,” Poetry 1913).

It’s absurd to think of my little poems as great works of art, and I don’t. They are simply personal explorations. And yet, they could be paths leading somewhere new.  A series of images, direct and efficient, may be the best avenue for understanding my mother, for understanding myself.

RELATED LINKS (Poems, Places, Books, Videos, Events, and Other Resources):
On “In a Station of the Metro” by Mark Doty – an essay
Hilda Doolittle – H.D.
Wild Roses – state flower of Iowa
Dominant and Recessive Genes
Clairvoyance Tests – According to one of these, I’m in the normal sense range – see what you are.