Posts Tagged ‘motherhood’

On day 16 of the 2020 countdown let’s honor poet Diane di Prima who died in October. I left her poem “Song for Baby-O, Unborn” at an empty playground. Empty because it was cold, not closed, but still a sad sight.


poem is on red post of yellow sign


Song for Baby-O, Unborn

by Diane di Prima



when you break thru

you’ll find

a poet here

not quite what one would choose.


I won’t promise

you’ll never go hungry

or that you won’t be sad

on this gutted




but I can show you


enough to love

to break your heart




This poem feels like it was written in June of this year, not 1957 when poet di Prima wrote it while pregnant with her firstborn. What better description of our 2020 world than this—


this gutted




It’s always an act of faith to bring a child into the world, particularly in a time of an unchecked pandemic, economic hardship, ecological distress and civil unrest. Seems that most of those cooped-up couples who were supposed to be reproducing like jack rabbits assessed their bank balance, the childcare situation and the frightening virus warnings for pregnant mothers and decided to pass on the baby registries. “Song for Baby-O, Unborn” is for the parents who went ahead anyway. All the best to them.


The singer in the poem is a woman after my own heart, a Debbie Downer. Typically, lullabies promise good things to come—Momma’s gonna buy you a mockingbird and a diamond ring and a billygoat—or highlight charming events in the here and now—twinkling stars and itsy bitsy spiders. But this mother’s lullaby is raw and a lot more real. No baby is going to be reassured, soothed or calmed to hear, You might not choose me as your mother and sorry, babe, I’m not going to be a stable provider.


In the end, “Song for Baby-O” is more a tribute to poets than sweet-talk for baby. I’ll be a great mother, the speaker says, because I’ll be the best guide for the world in all its wonders. Poets have a leg up on other parents in that regard, but all parents teach their children, consciously or not, how to see the world. What is soothing and charming and calming is the chance, so often provided by being in the company of children, to see the miracles.


Question, readers:  what does that last stanza mean? Why is love going to break the baby’s heart forever, and why would that be a consolation for all the things the poet-mother cannot provide?




Poet Diane di Prima, one of the few women in the male-dominated Beat scene, was born in 1934 in Brooklyn. She started writing poems when she was six, and before she was twenty she was corresponding with poet Kenneth Patchen and visiting Ezra Pound daily at the mental institution where he was housed.


She studied at Swarthmore for a few semesters but left to join the Greenwich Village scene. There she founded Poets Press, and along with her lover, poet Amiri Baraka, edited a literary newspaper called The Floating Bear. The couple also founded a theater group, New York Poets Theatre, and had a child together. In Greenwich she hung around with all the famous Beats—Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Frank O’Hara, Lawrence Ferlinghetti. She wrote a novel about this time in her life, My Life as a Beatnik, which she later said was mostly true except for the excessive sex scenes her editor asked her to include.


After spending time in Timothy Leary’s psychedelic commune in the Catskills, she moved, in the late 60’s, to San Francisco. There she worked with a street-performing group known as The Diggers who also handed out free food and political leaflets.


A classic free spirit, di Prima lived a big, zesty life. She published more than 40 books of poetry, had five kids, two husbands, multiple lovers, taught at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics and several colleges, worked as a photographer, collagist and nude model. In an interview with Jacket magazine (as quoted in the Poetry Foundation web page), she said, “I wanted to have every experience I could have, I wanted everything that was possible to a person in a female body, and that meant that I wanted to be mother.… So my feeling was, ‘Well’—as I had many times had the feeling—‘Well, nobody’s done it quite this way before but fuck it, that’s what I’m doing, I’m going to risk it.’”


Like her Italian grandfather whom she admired, di Prima was anarchist in her political beliefs. Anti-capitalist, she managed to support her five children and at one time, a whole caravan of families living in San Francisco. She was arrested by the FBI for obscenity charges which were later dropped. She appeared on stage with The Band at the “Last Waltz” concert, where she recited a one-line poem: “get your cut throat off my knife.”


She was a practicing Buddhist and co-founded the San Francisco Institute of Magical and Healing Arts. In 2009 she was named San Francisco’s Poet Laureate. She was 86 when she died.





Read Full Post »

I’ve been posting submissions in the order in which I received them, which led to the mistiming of today’s entry of Billy Collins’ tribute to his mother, “The Lanyard.” Should have been last week, before Mother’s Day. That said, (said the mother), Hallmark doesn’t have a monopoly on appropriate days to thank one’s mother.


Today’s poem and picture are from Lizzie, my daughter, a nurse in northern Michigan. She noted that the first stanza sounds like a re-cap of daily life under shelter-at-home orders. Indeed it does!


Thanks, Lizzie, the floor is yours—




I put the poem in the aisle where the toilet paper should be, across from the mother/baby aisle. Hoped it would get more traffic there. I felt very protective of it and lingered for a little too long, not wanting the poem to get taken down before it made some meaning for someone!


I like the poem because it captures the absurdity and difficulty of thanking a mother for mothering, and makes me think how beautiful and pure is a mother’s love, a love that does not ask to be repaid.



The Lanyard

by Billy Collins


The other day I was ricocheting slowly

off the blue walls of this room,

moving as if underwater from typewriter to piano,

from bookshelf to an envelope lying on the floor,

when I found myself in the L section of the dictionary

where my eyes fell upon the word lanyard.


No cookie nibbled by a French novelist

could send one into the past more suddenly—

a past where I sat at a workbench at a camp

by a deep Adirondack lake

learning how to braid long thin plastic strips

into a lanyard, a gift for my mother.


I had never seen anyone use a lanyard

or wear one, if that’s what you did with them,

but that did not keep me from crossing

strand over strand again and again

until I had made a boxy

red and white lanyard for my mother.


She gave me life and milk from her breasts,

and I gave her a lanyard.

She nursed me in many a sick room,

lifted spoons of medicine to my lips,

laid cold face-cloths on my forehead,

and then led me out into the airy light


and taught me to walk and swim,

and I, in turn, presented her with a lanyard.

Here are thousands of meals, she said,

and here is clothing and a good education.

And here is your lanyard, I replied,

which I made with a little help from a counselor.


Here is a breathing body and a beating heart,

strong legs, bones and teeth,

and two clear eyes to read the world, she whispered,

and here, I said, is the lanyard I made at camp.

And here, I wish to say to her now,

is a smaller gift—not the worn truth


that you can never repay your mother,

but the rueful admission that when she took

the two-tone lanyard from my hand,

I was as sure as a boy could be

that this useless, worthless thing I wove

out of boredom would be enough to make us even.


Read Full Post »

Marie Ponsot, poet, translator, teacher, stroke survivor, nonagenarian writer of acclaim who wrote for twenty-five years in obscurity, single mother of seven (six of them boys!), lifelong Catholic, writer of my all-time favorite poem “Among Women” and co-author of one of my all-time favorite childhood books, The Golden Book of Fairy Tales, died a few weeks ago, July 5, at age 98.


I’ve had four poems of hers on the docket for my file-clearing project (Franz Wright’s been done, Seamus Heaney, Charles Simic, Grace Paley still to come). I posted them just after she died. These wouldn’t be the poems I’d choose if this were a planned tribute to Ponsot—not that they’re anything less than wonderful—they just aren’t my favorites of hers, which is the reason they have been in my leftover pile for so long.


I was helping to move one of my daughters from Baltimore to northern Michigan and Ponsot’s mothering eye seemed just right for the moment. You can read a good obituary of Ponsot here. Meantime, let’s start with “After the Pastoral.” I taped it to a window in my daughter’s Baltimore apartment where she’s lived for the last two years.


I’m sure that come September This year my child goes where I can’t follow will be a painful line for many mothers. I myself went through those farewells years ago, but that maternal feeling of being ferocious with fear just never goes away.

(I’m not understanding the last line—I picture a mother nursing a baby, innocent of the anxiety mothering older children brings—but let me know how you read that line.)


I set “Climbing in Big Bend National Park” on a brick wall as I walked to buy more packing tape. Not the best spot for this poem, but people, I was in Baltimore.


The side of the mountain like a pelvic floor? I’ll never forget that. Or this:  We city people laugh to shrug off awe


On packing day my daughter discovered that her elderly next-door neighbor had once been an art teacher at her high school back in Michigan. I taped “What the Worn Rhymes Find” to a planter on the former art teacher’s front porch.


Cyanide and gold, the stain of the woman’s long lies, of the tough unsayable. Poisonous and precious. What a description of family secrets! What rhymes, not worn at all, so effortless!


Lastly I put “The Problem of Revolution” at a Panera condiments bar at a rest stop along the Pennsylvania turnpike.


The charming details of the clothes and the dessert, the guests (the scented aunt who thinks her new/and the cousin, ten, who sees her old) come to a hard stop at the poem’s end. Who remembers that feeling of disconnection, of crawling out of your skin to get away from what used to comfort?


To close this post, here’s Lizzie just before she put a framed Anais Nin quote in the uHaul.

“You live out the confusions until they become clear.”

That seems as good a summary as any for a young woman beginning a new chapter of her life and a great poet doing the same.


From a previous post, a short bio of Ponsot:

Marie Ponsot was born in Queens, New York in 1921.  She graduated from a women’s college in Brooklyn and went on to earn her master’s degree in seventeenth century literature at Columbia University.  After World War II she went to Paris and married the French painter Claude Ponsot.  She had seven children with him, one daughter born in Paris and six sons when they moved back to the States.  She divorced and worked many years as a translator of French children’s books to support her large family.  In 1957 she published her first book of poetry through a connection with Beat poet and publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti.  The book’s reception was overshadowed by another book published by Ferlinghetti, Allan Ginsberg’s Howl, and Ponsot seemingly disappeared from the world of poetry.


Although Ponsot would not publish for another twenty-four years, she continued to write, late at night after the children were in bed.  When she was in late middle age, she published her second book and began to garner attention and awards.  Unfortunately she still doesn’t seem to have the fame she deserves:  her biographical entry in Poetry Foundation’s website is woefully short, a mere paragraph.


Her life story reminds me of another Catholic poet, the marvelous Anne Porter.  Porter was also married to a painter, raised a large family and found recognition late in life.


As much attachment as I have to “Among Women,” I’ve discovered that Ponsot has been a part of my life even before I even read the poem.  I was delighted to read that she translated the Golden Book of Fairy Tales. It’s an indelible part of my childhood.  Many a night I spent with that book, reading in the bathroom because lights were supposed to be out.  Children, too, wander as best they can.


The book is still in print.  My children loved it.  Once in a while I’ll pull it out and wonder over the beautiful illustrations and strange stories.


Read Full Post »

It’s a good thing I passed by a playground before I found the cemetery I was on the hunt for. Because “Happy Mother’s Day, I see dead people” is twisted, even for a twisty elf like me.


But I do see dead people this Mother’s Day—my mother who died the week before Mother’s Day three years ago, my mother-in-law who died just this past November. The poems featured in this post see dead people too, or at least people from the past, as they once were.


So if you’re not grieving a lost mother this Mother’s Day . . . well, lucky, lucky you. Give your mum an extra smooch.


I left Meghan O’Rourke’s “My Mother” on a checkerboard table near the playground equipment:



I can’t read this without . . . you know . . . more-than sniffling . . . especially since the last car ride I took with my mother was to see the cherry blossoms.


Come down from your weeping cherry,

Mother, and look at how we have scattered

your ashes only in our minds, unable

to let you leave the house—

I couldn’t find the full text on line, but link here to a beautiful essay O’Rourke wrote about her mother’s clothes after her mother died.


O’Rourke also wrote an ode to her aunts, which I left on a park bench at the same playground:


I myself had only one aunt who I never knew, but I had older sisters who were as intoxicating to me as O’Rourke aunts were to her. I called them “Cool Girls” because they were. And still are.

Here’s a link with the poem. O’Rourke is a master of endings. See how she brings the car full of smoking-hot aunts to a halt:

Stop now, before the green

comes to cover your long brown bodies.




I set Rita Dove’s “Motherhood” against some books in a Little Free Library:


It’s a disturbing dream of a baby in mortal danger—

Then she drops it and it explodes

like a watermelon, eyes spitting.


But the poem turns just a hair and suddenly the mother’s fierce protectiveness of her baby threatens the life of another creature, some other mother’s offspring—


On a newfangled jungle gym I taped Eavan Boland’s “Is It Still the Same.”


This one gives me chills, in the best kind of way, the surprise of the young mother writing turning out to be an older mother writing—

I wrote like that once.

But this is different:

This time, when she looks up, I will be there.


Finally, I taped Marie Ponsot’s “Between” to the pole of a swingset:

Ponsot dedicates the poem to her daughter whom she observes, pregnant (at least it seems to me) and walking in the door:

The woman, once girl once child, now is deft in her ease,

is door to the forum, is cutter of keys.


Happy Mother’s Day to all!


Especially the motherless (sad trombone sound).


Now here’s something a little more cheerful. This Friday Chicago writer Bridget Gamble will email her weekly newsletter, this one a collection of mother-wisdom, just in time for the holiday. Link here to subscribe.


Read Full Post »


poem is on second shelf from the top

poem is on second shelf from the top


In Mind


There’s in my mind a woman

of innocence, unadorned but


fair-featured and smelling of

apples or grass. She wears


a utopian smock or shift, her hair

is light brown and smooth, and she


is kind and very clean without



but she has

no imagination


And there’s a

turbulent moon-ridden girl


or old woman, or both,

dressed in opals and rags, feathers


and torn taffeta,

who knows strange songs


but she is not kind.




Years ago when I raising little children, I spent very little time writing but a lot of time reading books about writing. One by novelist Rita Mae Brown made a particular impression. As I remember, Brown asserted that you can have children or you can have a writing career but not both. A writer needs to be selfish, focused and dedicated only to her work. Motherhood wasn’t compatible with an artistic career.


What I got out of that book, besides the inevitable overdue fine at the library, was that either you could be a very good writer or a very good person. This idea was discouraging, to say the least, but also a useful excuse for not writing. I’d rather be a good person, a good mother than a good writer.


My exposure to writers up to that point reinforced this dichotomy. For Pete’s sake I had been through an MFA program. MFA programs, for those who didn’t watch the most recent episode of Girls, tend to bring out the worst in everyone. At workshop tables I sat elbow to elbow with people who were competitive, needy, emotionally unstable, snarky, smarmy and sometimes downright nasty. With a few notable exceptions, they were people I may have admired but didn’t want to hang around.


In her poem “In Mind,” Denise Levertov sets up similar opposing forces: imagination and kindness seem to be mutually exclusive. The two sides are represented by three women. The “woman /of innocence” is a single being, a fully integrated person whose attention to hygiene alone would preclude her from being a writer. Levertov describes her with details that highlight her less-than-riveting personality. Her hair—light brown—is neither dark nor light; she’s dressed simply in a “utopian smock” like some vacant-headed worker from a collective or commune or organic apple farm; she wears no jewelry or presumably makeup. Dependable. Sweet. Angelic but dull.


The second persona, on the other hand, is bewitching and witch-like. She’s not even one person but two, and made up of contradictions: both old and young, bejeweled and in rags, interesting but not nice. I imagine her to be the opposite of the woman of innocence in every way: her hair dark, curly and unwashed, her air experienced.


So I’m back to this idea that good person equals bad writer. And also good writer equals bad person. But I wonder if an idea so reductionist is what Levertov had in mind. I don’t think so. And what she has in mind is important in a literal way, since the poem is titled such and begins the same. In her mind are these three women. Multiple personas in one mind. That’s a good start on a description of a writer, of any artist. F. Scott Fitzgerald once said (and I quote from a tweet by @JonWinokur), “There was never a good biography of a good novelist. There couldn’t be. He is too many people if he’s any good.”


I chose to read the poem in reference to writers, but “In Mind” can refer to any artistic person, anyone whose imagination is her stock-in-trade, anyone who feels pulled this way by art and that way by the people in her life, anyone who feels her dark creative leanings at odds with civilized society and her kinder nature.



I left the poem in the writing section of the library. Just as the coast was clear and I was about to tape the poem to some writing guides and take the picture, a young woman plopped herself on a library stool beside me. I didn’t want to wait for her to leave, so I explained what I was doing and asked if she’d be in the picture. She agreed as if my request was perfectly normal. Library Girl, if you ever read this, thank you for your openness to the abnormal.



Here’s a short bio of Levertov from a past post.


Screenshot 2015-01-08 18.04.30Denise Levertov was born in a suburb of London in 1923 to politically active parents.  Her mother was Welsh and her father was from a Russian Hassidic Jewish family. Levertov was homeschooled and she began writing early.  From age five she had a strong sense of her destiny to be an artist, and when she was 12 she sent T.S. Eliot some of her poems.  He responded with two pages of encouragement and advice.


During the London Blitz, she served as a civilian nurse.  She married an American writer and eventually became an American citizen.  She was poetry editor of The Nation and Mother Jones and taught at Stanford, among other universities.


Later in life she converted to Catholicism and became a political poet, speaking out against Vietnam War, nuclear arms, the U.S. involvement in El Salvador, and the Gulf War.


Levertov died in 1997 at age 75.


In light of the poem and my earlier musings, it seems important to add that Levertov had a son, Nikolai. From whom she was sometimes estranged. And then reconciled with on her deathbed. And that she is often described as “complicated” (read “difficult”). For those truly interested, link here for a good summary of two recent biographies on Levertov.







Read Full Post »


poem is taped to bench

poem is taped to bench


Briefly It Enters, and Briefly Speaks

by Jane Kenyon


I am the blossom pressed in a book,

found again after two hundred years. . . .


I am the maker, the lover, and the keeper….


When the young girl who starves

sits down to a table

she will sit beside me. . . .


I am food on the prisoner’s plate. . . .


I am water rushing to the wellhead,

filling the pitcher until it spills. . . .


I am the patient gardener

of the dry and weedy garden. . . .


I am the stone step,

the latch, and the working hinge. . . .


I am the heart contracted by joy. . . .

the longest hair, white

before the rest. . . .


I am there in the basket of fruit

presented to the widow. . . .


I am the musk rose opening

unattended, the fern on the boggy summit. . . .


I am the one whose love

overcomes you, already with you

when you think to call my name. . . .




Last Christmas, when one of my daughters made me a mobile with eggs and birds falling out of an overturned nest, I looked ahead to my own approaching empty nest with poetic appreciation. Out from the nest came the eggs, and from the eggs came colorful origami birds, each on its own flight path. New life out of the old. The next year would bring new life for my youngest, who would be leaving for college, and new life for my husband and me. Suddenly unencumbered, presumably we would chase each other around the empty house like teenagers.


All part of the never-ending cycle of life.


Now that day is here, and it seems less a poetic cycle than a prosaic ending. The end of my mothering.


I know, I know. I should be delighted that my daughter is where she’s supposed to be. With her new bedding and roommate and independence, she’s as happy as I could have hoped. And, yes, I’ll sleep better on weekends, cook less on weekdays, keep a cleaner house, keep all my socks to myself, and have more time to pursue what efficiency expert Frank Gilbreth (and Cheaper by the Dozen dad) described as the reasons we need to save time: “For work, if you love that best. For education, for beauty, for art, for pleasure. For mumblety-peg, if that’s where your heart lies.” After 25 years of organizing my days around kids, I’m free to organize my days around mumblety-peg.


Bah. Right now I’d take four little kids pulling me in four different directions over freedom and mumblety-peg. A drawer full of matched socks can be depressing. Uninterrupted sleep can be dull. An orderly house can be a sad house. An orderly house means a house without Anne Marie’s worn Birkenstocks and enormous backpack, a house without her dancing and deep sleeping, her jars of Nutella, her unmade bed, her unexpected wisdom, her little kindnesses, the nearness and dearness of her–


that hook in the foreground looks like it's ready to whisk her away

that hook in the foreground looks like it’s ready to whisk her away


Before I start tearing up again, I’m going to turn quickly to the poem and keep this post brief.


I left Jane Kenyon’s “Briefly It Enters, and Briefly Speaks” on a bench across the street from my daughter’s new dorm on move-in day.


I left it as a kind of protection, a talisman, a reminder of the love that will always be hers. I realize the “I” in the poem is a divine being capable of an unconditional love parents can only aspire towards, but still, this—


I am the one whose love

overcomes you, already with you

when you think to call my name


–seems on the mark for parents whose children suddenly forget to use their cell phones.


There’s another reason I chose this poem. Telling other people what to do is one of the aspects of mothering that’s hard for me to give up, and so after I reminded my daughter to take her thyroid medication and go to every class and eat vegetables and wear her glasses and go to Mass, I left the poem behind as my final instruction. To her and to all incoming freshman and returning upperclassmen, I say: Look out for each other, dear children. Be the patient gardener, the working hinge, the basket of fruit. Because college can be a lonely place sometimes. And for some kids, it’s lonely every day, every hour, every second. Suffering so often hides in plain sight.


Poet Jane Kenyon was no stranger to suffering herself. Maybe the real reason I selected this poem is that her clear-eyed exploration of pain and plain-spoken pleasure in the world as it is put my little sadness in perspective.


ImageKenyon was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan in 1947. Her mother was once a singer and later a seamstress; her father was a piano player. She attended the University of Michigan, where she fell in love with her poetry professor, Donald Hall, nineteen years her senior and later U.S. Poet Laureate. Upon earning her masters at Michigan, she married Hall and moved with him to his family farm in New Hampshire. She suffered from depression all her adult life. When she was 46 she was diagnosed with leukemia, and she died a year later at 47. Four months before she died, she was named poet laureate of New Hampshire.


She only published four books of poetry in her lifetime, and the best of those poems were gathered in a posthumous collection called Otherwise. It’s one of my favorite books I own from any genre.


Jane Kenyon is the poet I’ve loved longest and best. The first book of poetry I bought was Otherwise. The first book of translated poetry I bought was her rendering of the poems of the great Russian writer Anna Akhmatova. And the second poem I featured on this blog was a Kenyon poem.


I’m going to close with that poem I posted four years ago, “The Clothes Pin.” It’s becoming clear to me that the only person I can tell what to do anymore is myself, so listen up, Poem Elf, you sniffling sap, you mawkish mush-head:


How much better it is

to carry wood to the fire

than to moan about your life.

How much better

to throw the garbage

onto the compost, or to pin the clean

sheet on the line

with a gray-brown wooden clothespin!




Read Full Post »

All poems are inside the dictionary under the clock

All poems are inside the dictionary under the clock


Seven people–or rather, six people and one group–sent me poems for the “Ultraconserved Words” challenge.  The prompt was to write a poem using ten or more words from a group of twenty-three words that some linguists believe have been in use since the end of the last ice age. Congratulations to all the participants!  Five of the seven poems centered around a mother figure, but besides that, the poems were different in form, tone and–even with a common core of words–diction. All of the words– I, we, thou, ye, who, this, that, what, mother, male/man, not, worm, bark, hand, ashes, fire, to give, to pull, to spit, to flow, and to hear–found a place in at least one of the poems, including ye and thou, not easy words to find use for in 2013.


Where to put poems based on words with ancient etymologies?   A dictionary, of course, a big fat dictionary housing all our English words and their origins. These days a dictionary is something of a fossil in itself.  So few people use them that putting the poems in the pages of one at my local library felt as if I were burying the poems to be resurrected by archeologists of the future.  Who knows when the physical version of these poems will resurface?


I put each poem next to a dictionary entry that was a key word in the poem.


The first poem is a collaboration from a group of nine women who call themselves the “Literary Ladies” of the Providence Aged Care Facility in Victoria, Australia.  The Literary Ladies is the only nursing home poetry group in the University of the 3rd Age, a worldwide ongoing learning program for seniors and the disabled.  The poets, all in their 80s and late 90s, meet twice a week to write poetry.  Facilitator Robyn Poul transcribes their lines on a white board and takes the poems home to type up.


Here, in their own words, is how they approached this poetry challenge:  “We thought that the words were so old that we had to give them some religious or spiritual significance. So we wrote a religious chant or prayer. The slow rhythm and repetition creates a picture of a ceremonial pace – a walk with an ordered crowd chanting together.” I put “The Mother” near “bark,” because I love the lines, I am Bark/to protect/to warm.


Image 12

It’s a marvel of the modern age, isn’t it, that these wonderful women can at the same time connect with women from eons past and with present-day readers the world over.  As Robyn the facilitator would say, cheerio, Literary Ladies!


Ginny Love Connors’ poem “Impossible” is above the word “worm.”  A worm, like the poet, like the “old black art,” can transform dirt/pain into something richer, something that allows growth.

Image 7



Of course I put “Ashes to Ashes” by Suzanne Fontaine under “ash.”

Image 13

Bark hard  and veins like worms are such strong descriptions of the old woman’s hands and unfortunately an apt one of my own that I think I’ll just give up on hand creams altogether.


Kathleen Haney’s “His Heart” is right below “fire.” This poem sounds like a song to me, a song Lucinda Williams might sing in a voice full of experience, heartache and tenderness.

Image 11


Trish Rawlings’ untitled poem, which I put above “who,”  is composed almost entirely of words from the list.  Quite a feat!  It puts me in mind of a spell or incantation.  Trish, please explain the sound of the worm flowing in the bark.  It gives me the heebie-jeebies.

Image 8


E. Muir says that writing her poem “Baby Turns Five” helped clear her mind during a busy time with her young children.  Her poem sits above “mother.”

Image 10


Finally, Teri Ledbetter’s poem.  The situation is evocative and mysterious–is the man begging on the street corner or is he someone in her inner circle?  At any rate, he’s an interloper, not welcome in the child’s world.

Image 9



Thanks to all who entered!

Read Full Post »

poem is inside clear bag of clean laundry for the homeless

The Beginning

“Where have I come from, where did you pick me up?” the baby asked

its mother.

She answered, half crying, half laughing, and clasping the

baby to her breast-

“You were hidden in my heart as its desire, my darling.

You were in the dolls of my childhood’s games; and when with

clay I made the image of my god every morning, I made the unmade

you then.

You were enshrined with our household deity, in his worship

I worshipped you.

In all my hopes and my loves, in my life, in the life of my

mother you have lived.

In the lap of the deathless Spirit who rules our home you have

been nursed for ages.

When in girlhood my heart was opening its petals, you hovered

as a fragrance about it.

Your tender softness bloomed in my youthful limbs, like a glow

in the sky before the sunrise.

Heaven’s first darling, twain-born with the morning light, you

have floated down the stream of the world’s life, and at last you

have stranded on my heart.

As I gaze on your face, mystery overwhelms me; you who belong

to all have become mine.

For fear of losing you I hold you tight to my breast. What

magic has snared the world’s treasure in these slender arms of


Rabindranath Tagore

hidden in a flowered pillowcase


Where do I come from, Mommy? is a question most children ask.  (Usually not, however, as early as the infant in the poem.)  For some parents the question is the chance they’ve been waiting for to expound on ideas ontological or anatomical. For others it’s an uncomfortable confluence of two bugaboo subjects—sexuality and spirituality.


Prudish parents of the past might have skirted around the question with talk of birds and bees, a visit from the stork, or a trip to the baby store.  Today’s more enlightened parents (or maybe just more verbose) might discuss mommy and daddy’s “special hug” (is it just me or is this off the charts in the ick factor?) or describe in confusing detail the sperm’s pursuit of the egg.


But I can think of no answer to Where do I come from? as beautiful as the one the mother in this poem gives her baby:

When in girlhood my heart was opening its petals, you hovered as a fragrance about it.


The poem combines a powerful message of parental love–

What magic has snared the world’s treasure in these slender arms of mine?

with a spiritual claim for the existence of the soul–

In the lap of the deathless Spirit who rules our home you have been nursed for ages

with a nearly scientific explanation–

twin-born with the morning light, you

have floated down the stream of the world’s life, and at last you have stranded on my heart.


Or at least I see that as a scientific explanation.  Maybe because I’m the daughter of a physics professor, that line calls up an image of a light wave floating around the universe for eons until the light, landing on the mother’s heart, becomes more particle than wave and comes to fruition in the womb.  (Note:  if you are a scientist or have any training in the sciences, pay no attention to that woman behind the curtain. Pay no attention!)


“You who belong to all have become mine” sounds like an idea based on the First Law of Thermodynamics, that is, matter cannot be created or destroyed.  We are all made up of the same matter, matter that has existed in various forms since the beginning of time.  Regardless of religious beliefs, the First Law of Thermodynamics connects us to each other and to the earth.


"You were in the dolls of my childhood games": my oldest nurses her babydoll DeDe

Pseudo-science aside, it’s hard to believe this poem was written by a man.  “The Beginning” is tender, full of what is traditionally thought of as “feminine” sentiment.  A little girl plays with dolls and dreams of her future children.  The poet celebrates maternal love, not as a rigid way of defining gender roles, but as the primary creative force in the universe.  The child is loved by the mother of all mothers, the “deathless Spirit.”  This deity is clearly female.  She breastfeeds her babies, just as the God of the Old Testament in one passage is characterized as nursing her people.


Deep, soulful parental love imbues a child with a sense of her specialness.  Of course parents can go overboard with telling a child how special he is.  We’ve all witnessed failures of the self-esteem movement.  But when the specialness comes not from how well the child climbs the jungle gym but from a tremendous, a priori love from parents human and spiritual, security takes root.  And from security, responsibility.  A passage by Jewish theologian Martin Buber has always stuck with me, probably because it echoes what the nuns used to tell us:


“Every person born into this world represents something new, something that never existed before, something original and unique.  It is the duty of every person . . . to know . . . that there has never been anyone like him in the world, for if there had been someone like him, there would have been no need for him to be in the world.”


How wonderful if every child could have such knowledge.  For that reason I hid this poem in a bag of laundry I washed for South Oakland Shelter.  S.O.S. is a local Detroit organization that houses and feeds the homeless in shelters that rotate weekly from church to church and synagogue to synagogue.  Volunteers serve breakfast and dinner, and provide beds, bag lunches, showers, and transportation. It’s a beautiful program because the homeless come right to the tidy doors of the suburbs.  The ease of volunteering brings in many who might not choose to go to an inner city shelter.  It’s beautiful too because the homeless can feel part of a wider community.  I know I’m always going on and on about connection, but connection is what we all crave, especially those who can feel invisible at best and despised at worst.  Tagore’s poem speaks to each person to say that they are loved, they are a special part of the universe, they are a beautiful mystery.


Even for those who had an abusive mother or no mother at all, this poem offers a universal mother’s love.  Poet Rabindranath Tagore lost his mother in early childhood.  Perhaps this poem is a re-creation of the mother’s love he missed.


If you can put a western label on an eastern figure, Tagore (1861-1941) was surely a Renaissance man.  Born in India, he was a poet, novelist, composer, playwright, educator and painter.  And he was not just a dabbler.  He was the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, he wrote the national anthems for India and Bangladesh, his plays are still performed today, he founded a university, and his work in music and writing has influenced sitar maestros and poets from Neruda to Paz.  He was a close friend of Ghandi and Nehru, his work was championed by Yeats and Pound, and he was a very handsome man to boot.



After finding (or inventing) scientific ideas in this poem, I was excited to learn that Tagore was interested in physics.  He met with Albert Einstein a few times in 1930.  If you’re curious about theories of causality, you can read a transcript of their conversation here.  I found the discussion a little dry until the two got around to music and improvisation.  Who knew Einstein was so interested in music?


More to the point, who knew about Tagore?  I didn’t anyway.  It’s humbling, isn’t it, to discover such a towering figure of global culture.  Makes me realize that the gaps in my education are much, much bigger than the ones I’m already aware of, like those in science and sitar music.

Read Full Post »