The month of May means Mother’s Day in the U.S. and it’s that time of year when Spring is in full bloom. During this season of rebirth and new life, we looked for poems that explore the different aspects of motherhood—what it means to have a mother, to be a mother, to leave behind a mother, to lose a mother.
For May’s Poetry We Admire, we curated five excellent poems from around the net on the theme of mothers/motherhood. We bring you Taylor Byas in River Mouth Review, Nicole Cooley in BOAAT Press, Ally Ang in The Shallow Ends, Teri Cross Davis in [PANK], and Jae Nichelle in The Offing.
Your first acquaintance with a mother’s
scent, how her t-shirt droops and smothers.
Your neck in a back-bend over the lip
of the sink. The old McDonald’s cup she dips
into the faucet. How she butters
your scalp with conditioner and stutters
through your unruly crown.
by Taylor Byas in River Mouth Review
There is much to admire in this tenderly evocative piece by Taylor Byas that goes right to the heart of an early childhood memory of a mother washing her daughter’s hair in the sink. The sensory details are incredible, such that I am utterly transported. I can almost feel the water and the mother’s hands rubbing my scalp. The anaphora, repetition, subtle end rhyme & enjambment are so well done that it all seems natural and effortless. I especially love, “The sprayer hose, its sputter / as it wets the back of your neck.” And I adore that the communication and love between the daughter and her mother is visceral, palpable, and transcends words: “Another language concealed within her grip.” Be sure to check out the entire issue of this great debut journal.
After my mother dies, I walk and walk the city until I can’t catch my breath furiously up and down the highway by my parents’ house in New Orleans. Past Prestige Flooring. Section 8 Housing. Zaddies Tavern, the hospital where my mother did not go to die.
Grief sharpens and loosens—
Then, five days after my mother dies, my best friend brings me to yoga class in an old library, with high ceilings and twinkling lights and I lie on the ground and take my first deep breath since my father found her body.
from “Breath, a Suite”
by Nicole Cooley in BOAAT Press
This sweeping five part elegy for the speaker’s mother is an examination of how grief inhabits our bodies and fundamentally changes us. Beneath the profound loss of the mother is an undercurrent of grief and regret for what we’ve done to Mother Earth, as the scene is set during a wildfire, the air thick with smoke. The smoke also brings to mind in the reader (as explicitly stated by the speaker’s husband) the memory of 9/11 and how that life-altering day changed us. All of it is so brilliantly represented by smoke in the air, the simple act of breathing, and the mother’s history as a smoker (reflecting also a specific time in the nation’s past). The complicated memories of the all too common mother-daughter dynamics regarding weight and body image really anchor the poem. Cooley deftly moves through all of these emotional and narrative complexities with grace and authenticity.
5 lie down inside of it / the belly of this poem / growing ripe & swollen / with your mourning / let your child body / sink into sleep / at its breast
by Ally Ang in The Shallow Ends
Ally Ang’s poem is also an elegy for a mother, written in the form of footnotes with the numbers plotted against the blank page like a constellation. This poem after Ocean Vuong is pure genius— the slashed line breaks and short syllables, the body imagery, examining again how grief changes you (“grief makes a vessel / of your body / just as water / takes the shape of its container.”) And specifically how the death of a mother “finds you / abandoned child / curled into a question mark.” This poem taps into the reptilian brain and I can feel it deep in my belly, the pain of a child who has lost their mother.
After eight years of marriage
I swelled the fruit of you. It was
spring and you bloomed like
laden with possibility—
the madder matter of me
folding and cleaving inside you
from “Goddess of Blood”
by Teri Cross Davis in [PANK] Magazine
This poem is told from the perspective of the Goddess of Blood, taking a journey through the five sacred mysteries of blood: birth, menarche, pregnancy and birthing, menopause, and death. So, in the same poem, we experience being born and giving birth. Each section has its own strong images and metaphor, starting with “Birth— You rode in on your mother’s / tidal prayer. I baptized you / in vernix and blood.” Then we move into menarche as a rusty entrance with a door swinging open to the blood’s slow exit at the “midnight altar of your bed.” Death is still the final mystery, as the speaker (ie. the goddess of blood) wonders if she will leave her subject “like a wrung sponge.”
& it’s a rapid unbirth. & we’re back in our mothers
who are back in their mothers back in theirs & who,
depending on what we believe, climb trees or are Eve. &
regardless, we’re naked & unlearn to hide & to shame
& unspeak our first words. & mine, I believe, was mama
by Jae Nichelle in The Offing
Jae Nichelle has two powerful pieces in the new issue of The Offing. I have a special love for art that explores alternate realities and time travel, like this time in reverse phenomenon of unbirthing where we each go back into our mothers’ wombs through time all the way to the very beginning, whatever you believe that looks like. The way this poem flows across the page with its perfect line breaks, pacing, and use of empty space, even the soft consonance of its controlling image of “womb & water”—all gorgeous! And I love the way the poem ties in language as the last thing we would “unlearn,” giving new layers of meaning to the idea of mother tongue.
The entire Palette family would like to wish all the mothers out there a very happy (if belated) Mother’s Day! And to those who are grieving the loss of a mother, we see you & we are sending you all our love.
Be gentle with yourselves, everyone. Peace.